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UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Canada, until recently seen as a champion of aboriginal rights, came under fire at the United Nations on Thursday for blocking implementation of a U.N. declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples.
The General Assembly passed the non-binding declaration last September despite opposition from several developed states that said it provided excessive property and legal powers. Canada was one of four countries that voted against it.
Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, chair of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues which met at the United Nations over the past 10 days, said Canada was now trying to block the use of the U.N. declaration as the basis of negotiation for an agreement at the Organization of American States (OAS).
She told a news conference Canada used to have a good image on indigenous rights and played a leadership role in drafting the declaration, including controversial sections on land.
"The change of government, however, changed the situation in a totally different direction," she said, referring to the January 2006 election of a Conservative government.
Now she said Canada's reputation was "very bad."
Ottawa sent its Minister of Indian Affairs, Chuck Strahl, to U.N. headquarters to promote what he said was Canada's strong commitment to the rights of indigenous peoples.
Strahl told a news conference Canada had taken concrete steps in education, access to clean water and accelerating claims for past mistreatment. He said Prime Minister Stephen Harper was also planning to make an apology for past wrongs.
"There's no doubting our resolve on these issues," Strahl said. He added that Canada had opposed the U.N. declaration because indigenous rights were already enshrined in its constitution and regulated by a complex series of treaties.
"In Canada of course we recognize Aboriginal rights and title in the constitution," he said, describing the U.N. declaration as "aspirational" in contrast to the concrete rights laid out in Canada's constitution.
The minister was asked why the leaders of some Canadian tribes had been excluded from the news conference. He replied that it was limited to accredited journalists.
A coalition of Canadian indigenous peoples released a letter signed by more than 100 legal experts challenging Ottawa's assertion that the U.N. declaration was incompatible with its constitution.
The coalition urged Canada to support the declaration which it said was "an essential, universal human rights standard" urgently needed to tackle marginalization and discrimination.
Under negotiation for 20 years, the U.N. document says that indigenous people, whose number has been put at 270 million worldwide, "have the right to self-determination."
One article states "indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired."
Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand voted against the declaration, though a new government in Australia has since taken a more conciliatory line on indigenous rights.
Tauli-Corpuz noted that Canada was still a strong supporter of the permanent forum on indigenous issues and said she was optimistic Ottawa would restore its reputation soon.
Editing by Eric Walsh