First-nations leaders discussed trade when they visited China last month but they also reached out to indigenous people with whom they share a history dating back tens of thousands of years.
Shawn Atleo, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said Friday one of the highlights of the weeklong visit was the time spent with the Qiang people in Sichuan province, who are still picking up their lives after a devastating earthquake in 2008.
"We visited the earthquake site and the mass grave site and we participated in a very sorrowful ceremony and saw the devastation," Mr. Atleo said in a telephone interview. "And then we were able to see the new city that has been built and see the new middle school and the new elder centre."
A totem pole presented by the first nations of Canada was raised outside a new museum, which will open in a couple of months. It was carved with figures of a bear and an eagle and other symbols of the natural environment that the Qiang readily understood, the national chief said.
The cultural gaps and the thousands of miles that separate the two peoples melted away, Mr. Atleo said, "and we were able to see one another really rather quickly."
The Qaing have come through great tragedy; tens of thousands of people were killed. "But they are looking to the future and these new relationships are part of the good medicine that [indigenous]peoples can offer one another, even if we're coming from different parts of the world."
Mr. Atleo said he was also impressed by the similarities between the cultural expressions of the Qiang and the first nations. "Whenever we have exchanges with indigenous people, especially in parts of Asia," he said, "I have to say, it's really not hard to imagine that 20,000 years ago we were talking about much closer links. So it's not about establishing and re-establishing those relationships but during this trip."
The Chinese, he said, have been very quick to recognize that first nations have a right to develop their land and as real partners in trade. To mark that type of economic exchange, Mr. Atleo and his delegation attended the grand opening of a first-nation grain management office in Dalian.
"Obviously China is thirsty for natural resources around the world and looking to Canada," he said, "so it's an opportunity to forge some direct trade links."