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Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada Minister Carolyn Bennett draws a standing ovation for

Praise and Guarded Optimism at Ottawa’s Pledge to Make UN Declaration Into Law

Daniel Mesec

Indigenous Peoples in Canada applauded the federal government after Minister for Aboriginal and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett announced endorsement of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in New York City on Monday May 9, to a standing ovation.

RELATED: Canada Announces U.N. Declaration to Become Federal Law

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegrade called the endorsement a crucial step in reconciliation and rebuilding relationships with First Nations across Canada.

“Today, Canada is sending an important message to Indigenous Peoples, to all Canadians and to the international community that indigenous rights are human rights,” Bellegrade said in a statement.

The declaration sets out a minimum standard for ensuring that Indigenous Peoples are granted full human rights as well as the right to self determination regarding their traditional territories, especially when it comes to natural resource development within those territories. The announcement by the Canadian government is a complete about-face from the former Conservative government’s position under Stephen Harper, which called the document “aspirational” and not legally binding. Following last fall’s federal election, the winning Liberal Party pledged to implement the declaration as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government committed to rebuilding relationships with First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples across the country. On Monday Canada formally removed the objections to some provisions that had kept the government from fully endorsing the declaration.

Bellegrade immediately took to Twitter, calling it a “historic day on path to reconciliation,” a move widely considered to be a turning point for nation-to-nation relationships with the Canadian government. But not everyone was equally enthusiastic. Although the endorsement is receiving applause from many First Nations, other were cautiously optimistic, especially nations embroiled in court battles regarding major resource development projects that the Liberals have failed to address so far.

Chief Lynette Tsakoza from the Prophet River First Nation in northeastern British Columbia is currently pressuring Prime Minister Justin Trudeau over the Site C hydroelectric project, which they say is impeding on treaty rights and the traditional culture of the Prophet River First Nation.

RELATED: First Nations Vow Fight Against Site C Dam in BC After Setback

Tsakoza said she’d like to see some action from the federal government before Prophet River gets too excited about Monday’s announcement.

“You’re always going to be skeptical when it comes to the government because they tell you one thing and then go and change their minds and give us broken promises half the time,” Tsakoza told Indian Country Today Media Network.

“The announcement to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People is long overdue and important to our First Nation people,” said Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) Chief Bobby Cameron in a statement. “We as Indigenous Peoples have to be fully included in all aspects of this relationship that includes developing the language of the framework, the appointment of any government advisors and the full participation during the draft stages all the way to the final outcome document.”

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami President Natan Obed, left, and Métis National Council President Clément Chartier at the 15th session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples. (Photo: Métis National Council)

Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the national representational organization for Inuit in Canada, welcomed the news, though he said it was not clear that it represented an actual change in attitude from the previous government. Nonetheless, he was willing to see how it played out as Indigenous Peoples and the government move forward following Monday’s announcement.

“Despite Canada’s stated positions, I remain optimistic that we can work in partnership with Canada on identifying a path forward to implementing the U.N. Declaration that affirms the right of Indigenous peoples to self-determination, and includes our full participation in navigating these complex issues,” Obed said in a statement.

AFN Regional Chief for Quebec-Labrador Ghislain Picard said the Declaration sets a strong foundation for reconciliation, but there is still much work to be done.

“First Nations will continue to press at every level for the full implementation of the Declaration which is good for Indigenous peoples and all Canadians,” Picard said. “The Declaration sets a strong foundation for the way in which we should work together—respectfully, nation-to-nation and in the spirit of reconciliation.”

Bellegarde is in New York City this week, leading the indigenous delegation from Canada and participating in a side event on implementing the Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action, which has been a focal point during the 15th session of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, which runs from May 9 through 20.

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