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Trudeau visits with Indigenous group at Parliament Hill tepee

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau leaves a teepee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on June 30, 2017.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met Friday with indigenous activists who set up a demonstration teepee on Parliament Hill ahead of Canada Day celebrations.

The prime minister and his wife arrived relatively unannounced at the site mid-morning, as the national capital was abuzz with preparations for the July 1 event that's expected to bring some half a million people into the downtown core.

The Bawaating Water Protectors from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., arrived Wednesday night to erect the teepee and engage in four days of what they called a "reoccupation" to draw attention to the history of Indigenous People in Canada during 150th birthday celebrations this weekend.

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Originally the group clashed with police, who arrested nine people and refused to allow the teepee, but all nine were eventually released and the structure was set up, then later moved to be close to the main stage for Saturday's events.

The prime minister stopped by while he was on Parliament Hill for rehearsals; the activists said they became aware Trudeau was going to visit when the RCMP came to search the structure.

The Trudeaus spent about 30 minutes inside, meeting with four people.

A video of the meeting posted on YouTube showed the prime minister sitting cross-legged, shoes off, and clasping a feather as he listened to a request from group member Candace Day Neveau that the current federal department responsible for indigenous affairs be renamed the office of honourable treaty relations, and that the current Indian Act be scrapped.

"We have to move beyond the Indian Act, we have to end the Indian Act but we can't do it with the stroke of the pen from Ottawa," Trudeau said.

"We have to do it with your partnership, with your leadership and there are people at different points along their healing journey . . . We need to respect your pace, your leadership."

Trudeau said young voices, like Day Neveau's, were essential to the process and thanked the group for sharing the moment with him.

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"As a young leader I am here to say we are going to be holding you accountable for abolishing the Indian Act and for making things right for our people," Day Neveau told him.

Trudeau did not speak to reporters once he exited the tent, but later posted a series of messages on Twitter about the meeting, calling it respectful.

"The painful fact behind this protest is that for too long, there's simply been no space for Indigenous Peoples to be heard in Ottawa," he tweeted.

"Our government is committed & dedicated to moving forward on reconciliation - myself & everyone in cabinet. And we have a lot of work to do."

The teepee may come down Saturday afternoon, but whether it does will require consensus among the group, member Ashley Courchene had said earlier Friday.

The Bawaating Water Protestors are just one of many indigenous groups planning protest events and demonstrations this weekend to draw attention to the fact that, for them, there is nothing to celebrate.

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Heritage Minister Melanie Joly said Friday the government respects the group's right to protest peacefully.

"We know that millions of Canadians will be celebrating tomorrow, but not all Canadians," she said.

"In the context of Canada 150, it is our time to reflect on the darker chapters that happened in our history and also work towards reconciliation and make sure that the next 150 years are way better when it comes to relationships with Indigenous Peoples."

As she clasped a bundle of tobacco in her hand after the meeting with Trudeau, Day Neveau said she hoped everyone could benefit from the message she and others are trying to communicate.

"This is a tobacco offering to Canada to stand and support Indigenous People," she said.

"May this be an educational experience for everyone to say that young leaders are rising, Indigenous People are rising."

Demonstrators erect tepee on Parliament Hill to protest Canada 150 celebrations
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