WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) - Canada’s main aboriginal group elected a new chief on Wednesday who pledged to oppose development of pipelines, mines and other resource projects unless they provide a “fair share” of benefits for often impoverished natives.
Perry Bellegarde, head of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, was elected chief of the national Assembly of First Nations (AFN), getting 62.7 percent support on the first ballot from delegates at a convention in Winnipeg. He will serve a 3-1/2-year term.
As did the other two candidates, Bellegarde endorsed aboriginal control of their lands and resources and the importance of getting their consent for development, though he was seen as the most willing to work collaboratively with the federal government.
“We will no longer accept poverty and hopelessness while resource companies and governments grow fat off our land and territories and resources,” Bellegarde said in his first speech as leader of the often fractious group.
“If our lands and resources are to be developed it will be done only with our fair share of the royalties, with our ownership of the resources and jobs for our people. It will be done on our terms and our timeline.”
Canada’s 1.4 million aboriginals have clashed with industry and the government in recent years over development of crude oil pipelines, mines and other resource projects on their traditional territories.
Bellegarde replaces Shawn Atleo, who resigned in May amid criticism he was too close to Canada’s Conservative prime minister, Stephen Harper, undermining the AFN’s credibility.
He told a news conference he values peaceful coexistence and mutual respect, and said if some aboriginals support and some oppose a specific project, the issue would be resolved by a “treaty among ourselves”.
Many aboriginals live in poverty, with poor housing, inadequate education and high unemployment, both on and off reserves.
A Supreme Court of Canada decision in June marked the first time the court recognized aboriginal title to a specific piece of land not covered by a reserve treaty.
While it could take years to establish title in other areas, the court warned that existing development projects on lands claimed by aboriginals might have to be halted if proper care is not exercised by their proponents.
Enbridge Inc’s Northern Gateway pipeline project, designed to carry crude oil to the Pacific Coast from the Alberta oil sands, was approved by Ottawa in June over the strenuous objection of several British Columbia native groups.
Additional writing by Andrea Hopkins in Toronto; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Peter Galloway