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UN criticizes conditions in Attawapiskat

The UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples has criticized the federal government's treatment of Attawapiskat and other First Nations communities. In response, the office of Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan has said the Rapporteur's comments had "inaccuracies" and lacked "credibility."

In a news release issued by the United Nations Office at Geneva, S. James Anaya said:

I have been in communication with the Government of Canada to express my deep concern about the dire social and economic condition of the Attawapiskat First Nation, which exemplifies the conditions of many aboriginal communities in the country.

Many of this First Nation’s approximately 1,800 members live in unheated shacks or trailers, with no running water. The problem is particularly serious as winter approaches in the remote northern area where the Attawapiskat community lives, which faces winter temperatures as low as -28 degrees Celsius.

The federal Government has recently agreed to provide emergency housing in Attawapiskat to address the crisis situation, placing the community under third party management to oversee spending, as a condition to receiving such housing assistance. However, band members, including the band chief, have denounced the third party management regime, asserting that they are better equipped to respond to the needs of their community than a third party manager.

...Reportedly, systematic underfunding of First Nations exacerbates their already diminished capacity to attend to the social and economic interests of their members. Further, it not does it appear that the Government is responding adequately to requests for assistance.

Moreover, the Government has allegedly been resisting efforts by the Canadian Human Rights Commission to inquire into allegations of discrimination on the basis of national or ethnic origin related to disparities in funding provided to First Nations as compared to non-aboriginal communities, inquiries that have been requested by First Nations themselves.

As the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples I will be monitoring closely the situation of the Attawapiskat First Nation and other aboriginal communities in Canada, keeping an open dialogue with the Government and all stakeholders to promote good practices, including new laws, government programs, and constructive agreements between indigenous peoples and states, and to implement international standards concerning the rights of indigenous peoples.

A report by APTN National News described the response from Minister Duncan's:

Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan's office blasted Anaya's letter, saying it had "inaccuracies" and lacked "credibility." A spokeswoman for Duncan said the minister would be responding.

"We will correct the inaccuracies in this letter, beginning with the fact that the special rapporteur could not name Canada’s minister of foreign affairs," said Michelle Yao, a spokeswoman for Duncan. "Anyone who reads the letter will see it lacks credibility."

Yao said the Conservative government was "focused on the needs of the residents of Attawapiskat, not publicity stunts."

The Conservative government is also "focused on addressing deep-rooted issues that have plagued Canada’s First Nations communities for generations," she said.

The Special Rapporteur's letter is being widely mentioned in tweets at #attawapiskat as well as being reported in The Globe and Mail and CBC News.

In related news, Net News Ledger posted photographs of Chief Theresa Spence's residence under the headline "There are no mansions in Attawapiskat."

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.