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NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, boards a flight for South Africa to attend a memorial for Nelson Mandela on Dec. 8, 2013.ADRIAN WYLD/The Canadian Press

While the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations is in South Africa to honour the life of Nelson Mandela, native leaders in this country say there are comparisons to be drawn between apartheid and Canada's treatment of indigenous people.

National chief Shawn Atleo, who flew to Africa with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a delegation of former prime ministers and other dignitaries, presented the South African high commissioner with an eagle feather on Wednesday and asked that it be buried with Mr. Mandela. Mr. Atleo also attended the lying-in-state of the former South African president and freedom fighter known to his people as Madiba, and performed a traditional ceremony on behalf of all First Nations.

"Following the ceremony, I reminded the entire delegation, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper, that we must take home with us Madiba's spirit of reconciliation," the national chief said in a statement, "that reconciliation requires respect on behalf of all parties, including respect for indigenous rights and recognition of indigenous peoples."

Some First Nations chiefs who are meeting in Gatineau this week, especially those who have been critical of the AFN and Mr. Atleo, questioned the decision to fly to South Africa with Mr. Harper. Others said they understood the need for a gesture from Canada's native people to mark the death of Mr. Mandela.

Grand Chief Doug Kelly, president of the Sto:lo Tribal Council in British Columbia, said Mr. Atleo is telling Mr. Harper and the other Canadian leaders that, if they are proud of supporting Mr. Mandela, they should ask themselves what they have done for First Nations at home.

"Is it not rich with irony that South Africa imposed its legislation on those peoples, those tribes, in 1948 and they learned from the Indian Act of the government of Canada, that they built their apartheid system on the Indian Act in Canada?" Mr. Kelly asked.

Some scholars say officials with Canada's Indian Affairs Department met with their counterparts in South Africa in the 1940s to discuss elements of the Indian Act that were eventually incorporated into apartheid, including a policy that required black South Africans to obtain a pass to leave their town or village.

Russ Diabo, a policy adviser for the Algonquin Nation Secretariat, said members of First Nations, particularly on the prairies, at times were required to obtain a pass from the local Indian agent to leave their reserve. That policy was in place until well into the 20th century, he said.

While the pass system was aimed at exclusion, Mr. Diabo said recent federal legislation is "social engineering our people into assimilation, and the end result is the termination of our collective rights."

Bill Erasmus, national chief of the Dene and the AFN's regional chief for the Northwest Territories, said it is important to understand that Mr. Atleo did not go to South Africa as part of the Canadian delegation but as a representative of First Nations.

Mr. Erasmus told the chiefs he thought it was appropriate that Canadian politicians were not asked to speak at the Mandela memorial. "How could they" he asked, given the "parallels" between South Africa and Canada.

"They have been calling our people, in the last year, terrorists," Mr. Erasmus said in reference to a threat assessment Canada's Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre prepared in January of the First Nations protest movement Idle No More. "That's what they used to call Mandela."