OTTAWA Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl on Thursday faced an ultimatum from First Nations chiefs who warned Canada would face a prolonged campaign of economic disruption in the coming year unless the federal government immediately moves to resolve long-standing grievances.

Strahl was hit with the ultimatum during a question-and-answer session with chiefs, following his speech to the Assembly of First Nations special chiefs assembly.

The confrontation reflected the gathering's increasingly feisty mood. Chiefs passed a resolution calling for an "international year of action" on Wednesday.

In an orchestrated move, the chiefs first demanded Strahl commit the federal government to support major improvements to native education. Then they delivered their terms.

"We are not begging, we will move forward one way or another. We will do what has to be done," said Kitigan Zibi Chief Gilbert Whiteduck, whose community sits next to Maniwaki, Que., about 120 kilometres north of Ottawa. "I am calling upon you to work with us."

With chiefs and delegates standing in support, Whiteduck said native leaders wanted increased funding for education from the federal government and support for efforts to create native-controlled education systems based on First Nations languages and culture. The dollar amount contemplated hovered in the $1.5 billion range, Whiteduck said in a separate interview.

"We want today a commitment on your part to engage with us. Yes or no," he said.

After demands from chiefs from B.C., Saskatchewan and northern Quebec, Roseau River First Nations Chief Terrance Nelson then delivered the warning.

"We are going to stand between the white man and his money because we know the money comes from our resources. We don't want tax payer money, we want a share of our own wealth," said Nelson.

Nelson said chiefs across the country also planned to lobby every foreign embassy in Canada, U.S. journalists and countries interested in Canadian resources such as China to deal directly with First Nations.

"The question of whether or not there are going to be blockades this coming year is going to be answered by the Government of Canada," said Nelson, whose community is about 88 kilometres south of Winnipeg. "Are you going to work with us, or are you going to leave us where we are at?"

Strahl said he was willing to engage in talks with the chiefs.

"I want to be part of that discussion," said Strahl. "Education makes everything else we talk about easier."

But he also cautioned: "I don't think blockades get you what you want."

Bill Erasmus, the AFN regional chief from the Northwest Territories, said the mood of chiefs reminded him of his protest days in the 1970s and of Oka in 1990, when Mohawks faced off with the Canadian military near Montreal.

"The frustration level is mounting and people feel that this government has no desire to work with them," he said. "They have told the minister that he will have to work with the people . . . (or) they will do it. There will be roadblocks, and other things."

Those "other things" could include rail blockades, the shutdown of border crossings and the blocking of access to mines, according to discussions between chiefs.

Even chiefs from communities that had no plans to engage in roadblocks or blockades, supported the calls to action.

"I do support the frustration that the chiefs do have," said B.C.'s Kamloops Indian Band Chief Shane Gottfriedson. "We support direct action, as we have in the past, but it doesn't mean we are going to shut down all the roads in our area. That is not what our people have mandated us to do."

jbarrera@canwest.com 

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