Wednesday, July 21, 1999 Published at 14:09 GMT 15:09 UK
North American Indians to pool resources
Aztec representatives arrive at the Assembly of First Nations
Hundreds of chiefs and other Indian delegates from across Canada and the United States have assembled for the largest such cross-border meeting ever.
The biggest Indian organisations in each country - Canada's Assembly of First Nations and the Washington-based National Congress of American Indians - are to sign a co-operation agreement on Friday after holding separate sessions on Wednesday and Thursday.
"We see this as an opportunity to renew historic ties with our friends to the south," said Phil Fontaine, grand chief of the Assembly of First Nations. "We recognise that a joint strategic approach to common issues is the best way to go - strength in numbers."
The groups will join forces to confront common issues such as treaties and protecting native lands from government intrusions.
The opening session was attended by 5,000 representatives of indigenous peoples including some from New Zealand, Asia and Latin America. They were joined by observers from the United Nations and the Organisation of American States.
Fontaine said they eventually hope to form political partnerships with aboriginal leaders from all over the world.
Wen Jing, head of the Chinese delegation, said he came to Vancouver to exchange ideas about culture and trade. Mr Wen said there are 56 ethnic minorities in China making up about 10% of the population.
Jane Stewart, head of Canada's Ministry of Indian Affairs, and Gordon Wilson, the British Columbia provincial minister in charge of aboriginal matters, are expected to meet the native leaders this week.
The conference comes at a time when relations between Mr Wilson's administration and Indians have hit rock bottom.
Indians in the province are fighting back by forming paramilitary security forces which would be used to act in aboriginal protests over land claims and fishing disputes.
Chief Fontaine said outside the meeting hall that he supports the British Columbia Indians' decision to form militias because talks with the provincial government have failed.
The last time leaders of Canadian and US Indians met to forge common policy was in 1939, at a much smaller meeting held in Toronto.