The Harper government stepped up to the plate Friday, formally signing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, ending Canada's isolation as one of two countries that refused to endorse the text.
The non-binding declaration commits member states to protect the rights and resources of indigenous peoples within the state. The United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand refused to sign when the accord was adopted in 2007, claiming that resource rights and other claims included in the text clashed with their constitutions.
Australia and New Zealand have since signed on. And the Conservative government signalled in the Throne Speech this year that the Prime Minister was prepared to end his government's opposition. Word came Friday afternoon from United Nations headquarters that Canada had signed, with certain qualifications. The government decided it was better to endorse the declaration and explain its concerns, rather than reject the whole document.
"It signals a real shift, a move forward toward real partnership between the first nations and the government," Shawn Atleo, Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said Friday in an interview.
Indian Affairs Minister John Duncan said in a statement that in endorsing the document the government was recognizing its importance to aboriginal Canadians.
"Canada's aboriginal leadership has spoken with passion on the importance of endorsing the declaration," Mr. Duncan stated. "Today's announcement represents another important milestone on the road to respect and co-operation."
Coupled with the Harper government's earlier apology to the survivors of residential schools, Friday's announcement appears to signal that the Conservatives are prepared to fundamentally rethink the relationship between the federal government and Canada's Indian, Metis and Inuit peoples.
Mr. Atleo believes the next priority should be for Ottawa to work with first nations and provinces to tailor more effective education programs, to end the egregious gap between aboriginal and rest-of-Canada graduation rates.
"It makes sense that we focus in on areas like education" systems in each province and territory, he said. "Let's reform them, strengthen them, let's get it right and make sure that young people are supported, can succeed and that their potential can be realized."
The declaration, hammered out over 20 years of talks between diplomats and representatives of aboriginal groups from around the world, says indigenous peoples have a number of rights - to their lands, culture, and languages, among other things - and that governments should work to protect these rights.
The United States remains alone in refusing to endorse the declaration, though President Barack Obama's administration has made improving relations with and living standards for native Americans a priority.
With a report from The Canadian Press