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President-elect Obama receives mixed feelings from Canada

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TORONTO – For Canadian indigenous people, the reaction to Barack Obama’s election to the United States presidency has run a gamut from euphoria to cynicism.

Stan Beardy, Grand Chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation in northern Ontario was among those who felt Obama’s triumph augurs well for other minority group members.

“By electing the first African-American president, the people of the United States are showing the world it is possible to close a dark chapter of history and move beyond racial and cultural divides,” he said in a release.

Chief Lawrence Joseph of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations said the election gives him hope. “This is an indication the world is moving towards inclusion of visible minorities,” he said.

National Chief Phil Fontaine of the Assembly of First Nations urged Obama to ratify the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, sending “a strong signal to indigenous peoples around the globe and the Canadian government - who also refuse to endorse it - that we are indeed in a new era of hope and opportunity.”

The sense of celebration began a few days earlier when Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, re-elected in October, appointed rookie Nunavut MP Leona Aglukkaq to the influential position of federal health minister.

The 41-year-old becomes the first Inuk to hold a senior cabinet position, heading a department with a budget of $3.2 billion and 10,000 employees.

Such symbolic advances may signal welcome change. But will they make a difference?

Aglukkaq, too busy for an interview according to officials, has a record as territorial health minister that some have characterized as lackluster.

Obama has reached out to indigenous people but observers take note of his right-wing Senate voting record and the careful wording that avoids committing him to specific policies.

One Canadian foreign-policy issue where the president-elect’s mettle will be tested is the Alberta tarsands development, producing more than 1.3 million barrels of oil a day, 75 percent of it piped south of the border to U.S. markets.

At present, the tarsands are seen by some as the engine of Canada’s economy and by others as a national disgrace, generating three to five times more greenhouse gases than conventional crude.

Athabasca Chipewyan Chief Allan Adam describes the devastated boreal forest, the polluted waters, the toxic tailings ponds and the failing health of his people. “The government of the United States is going to have to face the reality that the disaster that’s happening over here is feeding into their economy over there,” he said in a telephone interview.

Does he expect Obama to change the course of development in the tarsands? No, he expects fixing the economy to be top priority with the environment unfortunately on the back burner. The multinational corporations will call the shots, he predicted.

Ironically, that’s not something that Prime Minister Harper is taking for granted.

The need to end America’s addiction to “dirty oil” is a matter on which Obama has come close to being outspoken. He has also said that he will re-engage with the UN process to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The U.S. – the planet’s largest generator of greenhouse gases - refused to ratify the Kyoto protocol under President George Bush.

This has prompted Harper to rethink his own government’s do-nothing policy on climate change (although Canada ratified Kyoto, its emissions continue to rise and it won’t be able to meet its 2012 target).

Harper, an Albertan, appears to think that the best way to sell the tarsands to Obama is to tie the development in to a fresh start on the environment. Within 24 hours of the Nov. 4 election, Harper’s senior ministers were floating a new joint climate-change pact that would impose common emissions standards in both countries while guaranteeing the U.S. access to tarsands production as a “secure” North American energy supply.

Cynics point out that the pact offers little to the U.S., which already has access to Canadian resources through the North American Free Trade Agreement. It may also be politically savvy for Obama to target dirty tarsands oil as relatively painless (to U.S. voters) first step in reducing emissions.

From Fort Chipewyan, Chief Adam is sensitive to the balancing act. He is strongly against trading off the environment for the economy, but neither does he want to see the tarsands closed down.

“We work in the areas, we have companies in the areas, we have a lot at stake here,” he said. But he does want to see a moratorium. “Hold it at the level where it’s at now, don’t create more of the mess. First, correct what is going on today. We’re reasonable people, we just want to create some certainty for our future generations on the environmental issues.”

Inuit activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier welcomed any action by the Harper government on climate change. “But nobody knows what he means,” she told the Montreal Gazette, expressing skepticism that anything substantial will come out of the plan.

Meanwhile, the thoughts of some Canadians are turning to the plight of Leonard Peltier, languishing in jail 32 years after being extradited for the 1975 shooting deaths of two FBI agents on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge reservation.

The extradition still rankles with Warren Allmand who was Indian Affairs minister at the time Peltier was arrested. It wasn’t until a year later – by which time he was no longer in government – that Allmand learned how the FBI had arranged for false affidavits to be submitted in “total contempt” for Canada and its courts.

That prompted him to take up Peltier’s cause, Allmand said in a telephone interview from Montreal. It’s been a long and dispiriting battle, but he expects Obama’s election will re-energize the Peltier defense groups.

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