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Politics Canada set to support UN Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Chief Bruce Shisheesh, left, Minister of Indigenous Affairs Carolyn Bennett, centre, and Federal NDP MPP Charlie Angus, right, meet in the northern Ontario First Nations reserve of Attawapiskat, Ont., in an April 16, 2016, file photo.

Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Canada is poised to embrace the UN's Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples — even as the federal government remains under fire for the dire conditions facing the troubled Attawapiskat First Nation.

Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said Monday that Canada will be changing its position on the declaration, removing its status as a permanent objector and becoming a full supporter of the document.

Bennett made the comments after Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould called on the United Nations to confront the legacies of colonialism around the world and to help rebuild communities for the world's indigenous peoples.

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The declaration and the work of the UN should be a "means to an end and not the end in itself," Wilson-Raybould told delegates during a speech in the cavernous General Assembly.

"Let us make it a century where nation states and indigenous peoples work in partnership towards true reconciliation that supports strong and healthy indigenous peoples that are in charge of and in control of their own destinies."

The declaration, which is not considered legally binding, sets out the rights of indigenous peoples around the world, including on issues such as culture and traditions, identity, health, education and language, among others.

Canada was one of four countries — Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. were the others — that voted against the declaration when it was passed in 2007.

The former Conservative government feared the declaration could not be reconciled with Canada's existing legal framework — a concern that still exists, says Tory indigenous affairs critic Cathy McLeod.

Wilson-Raybould said the ultimate goal of the declaration should be to improve the quality of life for indigenous peoples and to help ensure their way of life is protected and allowed to thrive.

"The declaration recognizes that indigenous peoples have both individual and collective rights," she said.

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"Participation in real decision-making is at the heart of the declaration's concept of free, prior and informed consent — that indigenous peoples must be able to participate in making decisions that affect their lives."

Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett is expected to formalize Canada's position on the declaration Tuesday during the UN's Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

Romeo Saganash, the NDP's critic for intergovernmental indigenous affairs who spent two decades working to craft the declaration, is also urging the Liberal government to support his private member's bill that provides a legislative road map.

"What I am proposing to do is to rather than debate whether it has application in Canadian law or not, I'm just confirming it does have a legal application in Canadian law," he said.

Saganash's colleague Charlie Angus, whose northern Ontario riding includes the remote Attawapiskat reserve, was to be part of the Canadian delegation in New York, but cancelled his trip in order to visit the community with Ontario counterpart Gilles Bisson.

Conditions in Attawapiskat — an isolated and poverty-racked First Nation near the western shore of James Bay — remain a source of great concern, especially after a shocking string of suicide attempts prompted Chief Bruce Shisheesh to declare a state of emergency.

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"We don't even have a child mental health worker," Shisheesh said in an interview with The Canadian Press. "We are still in a crisis mode here."

The community needs permanent mental health workers to help with kids under 18, said Bisson.

"What they have is a couple of people who deal with ... children who need to be apprehended," he said. "There isn't type of any intervention in the community to deal with a child in crisis. That's what I am trying to get my head around here."

Shisheesh said Monday he is overwhelmed, frustrated and most of all concerned about the lives of young people in the community.

It is shocking the reserve has been fighting for critical resources, given the high-profile controversy surrounding conditions in Attawapiskat and the involvement of powerful people, including the Prime Minister's Office, Angus added.

"We need a co-ordinated effort with both levels of government working with the community," he said.

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In a statement, Health Canada said it is in regular contact with provincial, federal and First Nation entities who are providing and funding services on the ground.

Later Monday, the Ontario government also announced it plans to leave an emergency response team in place to work with the Weeneebayko Area Health Authority to integrate clinical care and ensure necessary resources are in place.

Amid political pressure last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau agreed to sit down with Attawapiskat's chief although no date for the meeting has been announced.

Since last year's federal election campaign, Trudeau has talked at length about re-establishing what he calls a "nation-to-nation" relationship with Canada's Aboriginal Peoples.

"I don't see any relationship yet," said Shisheesh.

Bennett said Monday she understands the cynicism or skepticism associated with severe challenges in communities.

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"This is a work in progress and we hope to earn back the trust that we want to work in total partnership communities," she said.

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