OTTAWA – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he delivered a message of respect and reconciliation Friday to indigenous activists who have set up a demonstration teepee on Parliament Hill ahead of Canada Day celebrations.
The prime minister and his wife arrived at the site mid-morning, as downtown Ottawa buzzed with preparations for the July 1 event that’s expected to bring around half a million people into the downtown core.
WATCH: Trudeau visits teepee on Parliament Hill
The Bawaating Water Protectors from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., had arrived Wednesday night to erect the teepee and engage in what they are calling a “reoccupation” to draw attention to the history of indigenous people in Canada during 150th birthday celebrations this weekend.
Originally the group clashed with police, who arrested nine people and refused to allow the teepee, but all nine were released and the structure was set up close to the main stage.
The Trudeaus spent about 30 minutes inside the teepee; on Thursday, the prime minister said their position is understandable and must be respected.
The Bawaating Water Protesters are just one of many indigenous groups planning protests this weekend to draw attention to the fact that for them, there is nothing to celebrate.
Heritage Minister Melanie Joly said Friday the government respects the group’s right to protest peacefully.
“In the context of Canada 150, it is our time to reflect on the darker chapters that happened in our history and also work towards reconciliation and make sure that the next 150 years are way better when it comes to relationships with Indigenous Peoples.”
Ottawa resident George Neville was on the Hill to show his support for those who brought the teepee to Parliament Hill.
“I think it’s reprehensible how they were treated initially,” Neville said of the early arrests. “But they won out. They made their case.”
Later in the afternoon, the activists made speeches with the help of a portable sound system. According to a Global News reporter on the scene, they asked for food to be brought for dinner, additional tents and that gates on the Hill be opened.
They then began erecting a second structure on the lawn near the teepee, reportedly as a shelter from the rain, but were stopped by police.
At almost the same time, the prime minister’s Twitter account sent out a statement on his meeting with the activists that morning.
“Today, I visited the protest tipi on Parliament Hill – I want to thank Candace Day Neveau for the respectful discussion we had inside,” the prime minister’s tweets read.
“The painful fact behind this protest is that for too long, there’s simply been no space for Indigenous Peoples to be heard in Ottawa … Our government is committed and dedicated to moving forward on reconciliation – myself & everyone in cabinet. And we have a lot of work to do.”
WATCH: Tensions rise as police stopped activists from building second teepee on Parliament Hill
Many streets around Parliament Hill closed Friday and massive concrete barricades blocked routes; a security sweep in the morning included officers looking into and under the decorative planters which line the roads.
WATCH: Trudeau says public safety of top concern for Canada Day in Ottawa
There were lineups to get through screening stations that will allow access to celebration sites Saturday, as security officials used Friday as a run through for tomorrow’s festivities.
Workers were busy putting the final touches on the main stage as visitors, who came from across the country and the world, snapped pictures by the centennial flame, hoping to get the large Canada 150 sign hanging over the stage in the background.
-With files from Global News