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Justin Trudeau promises new focus on rights of Indigenous peoples

OTTAWA—Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is committing his government to implement a new legal framework to advance the rights of Indigenous peoples, billed as a critical step to tackling chronic problems.
In a speech to the House of Commons Tuesday, the prime minister laid out a new vision for the federal government’s relations with Canada’s Indigenous peoples.
“We need a government-wide shift in how we do things,” Trudeau said.
“We need to both recognize and implement Indigenous rights, because the truth is . . . until we get this part right, we won’t have lasting success on the concrete outcomes that we know mean so much to people,” Trudeau said.
At the heart of his pledge is a vow to create a “recognition and implementation of (an) Indigenous rights framework” that will include new ways to recognize and implement such rights.
“Going forward, recognition of rights will guide all government relations with Indigenous peoples,” he said.
The exact make-up of this framework has yet to be determined. It will be developed over the coming months through national consultations, led by Carolyn Bennett, the minister of crown-Indigenous relations and northern affairs, and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould.
Trudeau painted the framework as a critical way to empower Indigenous communities and find lasting solutions to chronic problems such as overcrowding, unsafe water and youth suicides.
“All of these things demand real, positive action — action that must include the full recognition and implementation of Indigenous rights. 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,” the prime minister said.
NDP MP Romeo Saganash cautioned Trudeau must “go from words to action” as he took aim at the government’s record to date on the file.
“The denial of Indigenous peoples rights continued under this government despite their promise for real change,” said Saganash, the party’s critic for reconciliation and himself a Cree from northern Quebec.
Section 35 of the Constitution sets out that “existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada are hereby recognized and affirmed.”
That section was not originally part of the Constitution but came only when the government of the day – led by his father Pierre Trudeau — was persuaded by the “outspoken advocacy” of Indigenous peoples.
Yet in the years since, those rights have not been implemented by governments, forcing Indigenous peoples into costly, drawn-out court battles, Trudeau said.
“While there has been some success, progress has not been sustained, or carried out . . . And, so, over time, it too often fell to the courts to pick up the pieces and fill in the gaps,” Trudeau said.
As a result, he said that too many feel the country and its institutions “will never deliver the fairness, justice and real conciliation that Indigenous peoples deserve.”
Although the speech had been planned for some time, it comes in the wake of the controversial acquittal of a Saskatchewan farmer in the death of Colten Boushie, a 22-year-old Indigenous man fatally shot in 2016.
In the wake of that decision, questions have been raised about the fairness of the justice system to Indigenous peoples.
The Liberal government is expected to propose Criminal Code changes next month to reform jury-selection rules, bail processes and other justice measures.
The Boushie family has been on Parliament Hill this week and Trudeau highlighted their presence in his remarks.
“Through all their grief and anger and frustration, their focus was not on themselves and the tragedy they have endured, but on how we must work together to make the system and our institutions better,” he said.
Trudeau told MPs that the justice system is an area where reforms are “urgently needed.
“That is why we will bring forward broad-based, concrete reforms to the criminal justice system, including changes to how juries are selected,” he said.

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