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Assembly of First Nations national chief Shawn Atleo appears at Commons Aboriginal affairs committee to give a briefing on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Nov. 1, 2011.Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The head of Canada's largest aboriginal organization says the year that has passed since this country's signing of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has marked the beginning of reconciliation between his people and Canada.

The Canadian government's endorsement of the document, which was adopted by the UN in 2007, came after years of years of negotiation and hesitation on the part of Ottawa.

Shawn Atleo, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said this week in an interview to mark the anniversary of the declaration's signing, that there was fear on the part of federal officials.

It was concern, said Mr. Atleo, that "somehow recognition of first nations, honouring of treaties, upholding of court decision as well as endorsement of the declaration would 'give something to somebody' and 'take something away from someone else.'"

In fact, he said, the document is all about first nations becoming economically self-sustaining and prosperous. It is also about maintaining indigenous language and culture.

Canada, said Mr. Atleo, has always embraced diversity.

There was little celebration when the document was signed by Canada. Aboriginal people are accustomed to having their expectations raised and then dashed, Mr. Atleo said.

But there was a "quiet acknowledgment that it was an important step, that it was a significant step," toward building a better relationship between indigenous peoples around the world and the nation states in which they live.

It followed on the heels of the federal government's apology for the treatment of aboriginal children at residential schools. "And now, even as of this winter, there are expectations of the potential of a first-nations Crown gathering and the idea of resetting the relationship with the federal Crown based on the framework that the declaration offers up."

The document is now cited often by first-nations leaders as they talk about their own sovereignty and rights going forward.

So, one year in, the declaration has to be perceived as historic, Mr. Atleo said. It launched a return to the original relationship between first nations and Canada, he said, "which requires reconciliation between a really difficult history with a resolve to create better conditions for first nations going forward into the future. Stronger first nations will undoubtedly make a stronger Canada."

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