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Court to rule on off-reserve natives' rights

Court to rule on off-reserve natives' rightsAttawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence holds hands with fellow hunger striker Jean Socks as she stands beside supporter Danny Metatawabin during a press conference outside her teepee on Victoria Island in Ottawa on Friday, January 4, 2013. A court ruling this morning is expected to clarify the relationship between Ottawa and the more than 600,000 aboriginal people who live off-reserve. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA - A court ruling this morning is expected to clarify the relationship between Ottawa and the more than 600,000 aboriginal people who live off-reserve.

The Congress of Aboriginal Peoples and several Metis and non-status Indians took the federal government to court in 1999 alleging discrimination because they are not considered "Indians" under a section of the Constitution Act.

They argue they are entitled to some or all of the same rights and benefits as on-reserve First Nations members.

They say that includes access to the same health, education and other benefits Ottawa gives to status Indians; being able to hunt, trap, fish and gather on public land; and the ability to negotiate and enter treaties with the federal government.

The Congress of Aboriginal Peoples and the Metis and non-status Indians involved in the case allege in a court document that they've been the victims of "deprivations and discrimination" by the federal government.

The decision comes as emotions — and tensions — are already running high in Canada's First Nations community.

Under the Idle No More banner, protests have been springing up across Canada denouncing the Harper government's omnibus budget bill, which First Nations groups claim threatens their treaty rights as set out in the Constitution.

Protesters have blocked roads and rail lines, staged demonstrations and held flash mobs across the country.

The Idle No More protests are taking inspiration from Theresa Spence, chief of northern Ontario's Attawapiskat First Nation, who has been subsisting solely on water and fish broth since Dec. 11 in hopes of prodding Ottawa into action.

But Spence herself has come under fire amid fresh questions about how her troubled northern Ontario reserve has been spending and accounting for millions in federal funding.

Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development released a scathing independent audit Monday that catalogues poorly documented, undocumented or questionable spending in Attawapiskat over almost seven years.

Spence has vowed to continue her meagre diet until after Prime Minister Stephen Harper meets First Nations leaders later this week.

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