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  • Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde adjusts a blanket presented to Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

    Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde adjusts a blanket presented to Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. | Photo: Reuters

Published 15 February 2018

While Prime Minister Trudeau called for an end to colonial-era laws, First Nations leaders cautioned of “a lot of good words” from his government.

Canada will create a legal framework to guarantee the rights of Indigenous people in all government decisions, doing away with policies built to serve colonial interests, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Wednesday as Native leaders in the country continued to caution against his charm offensive and demanded actions rather than words.

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In a sweeping speech that condemned past governments for failing to do enough to protect the rights of the Native people, Trudeau said the planned legislation would ensure "rigorous, full and meaningful" implementation of treaties and other agreements and could establish new ways to resolve disputes.

While treaty rights with aboriginals are already recognized under Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the framework would ensure the constitution is the starting point for such matters as resource development, self-governance, land rights and social issues.

"We need to get to a place where Indigenous peoples in Canada are in control of their own destiny, making their own decisions about their future," Trudeau said in the House of Commons.

However, Indigenous leaders in Canada remained skeptical of the government’s intentions or ability to bring change to some of the fundamental problems facing their communities.

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Neskonlith First Nation Chief Judy Wilson told CBC News that Trudeau's speech omitted an important component of the rights equation: Indigenous title to lands. Wilson’s community is located in British Columbia where most of the territory is not covered by treaties and is considered unceded Indigenous land.

Meanwhile Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Sheila North said she heard "a lot of good words" from Trudeau, but she wanted to "wait and see how far he takes his words."

The liberal prime minister said his government would initiate a months-long “engagement” process with Indigenous groups as well as provinces, industry and the public as it writes the legislation, which will be introduced this year and implemented before the 2019 election.

But North questioned that approach saying that her people “already have a way forward and a plan and we don't need to go down that road again and look for engagement sessions that will reinforce what they want to do."

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She is referring to the failed talks following the repatriation of the Constitution in 1982 that left Indigenous rights undefined. "Our people are sovereign nations and they have laws that should be and have to be implemented to change the next 150 years."

Trudeau says he wants to re-engage with the local Native communities in order to include those treaties and rights within the country’s constitution and reverse the result of the 1982 talks.

The news comes just days after a white farmer was found not guilty by an all-white jury after he shot and killed Indigenous man Colten Boushie in a high-profile case that triggered calls for changes to Canada's justice system.

Indigenous activists argue that the white farmer got away with the murder because under the current Canadian justice system, legal teams are allowed to weed out potentially hostile jurors with a “peremptory challenge” during jury selection.

His defense team was able to disqualify jurors that looked Native and thus the jury ended up being all white despite the fact that Saskatchewan province, where the incident took place in August 2016, has a large indigenous population.

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