The United Nations special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples on Tuesday expressed "deep concern" about conditions in the Attawapiskat First Nation.

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UN special rapporteur James Anaya says he has asked Canada's government about the 'dire' conditions in Attawapiskat. (Eraldo Peres/Associated Press)

James Anaya, who reports to the UN's Human Rights Council, said in a statement that he had contacted the Canadian government about "the dire social and economic condition" of the First Nation. 

Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence declared a state of emergency in late October as winter moved in on the community of 1,800 near the shore of James Bay in northern Ontario, where many residents were living in shacks and trailers without running water.

Anaya said Attawapiskat reflected the conditions of many aboriginal communities in Canada.

The special rapporteur noted that overall, Canada is a country with human rights indicators among the best in the world, yet "aboriginal communities face vastly higher poverty rights, and poorer health, education [and] employment rates as compared to non-aboriginal people."

Reaction in Ottawa

Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan's office took aim at Anaya's statement, saying it "lacks credibility" and contains "inaccuracies."

"Our Government is focused on the needs of the residents of Attawapiskat — not publicity stunts," Michelle Yao, a spokesperson for Duncan, said in a statement. "We are also focused on addressing deep-rooted issues that have plagued Canada's First Nations communities for generations."

Earlier in December at a meeting in Ottawa, the Assembly of First Nations passed a resolution asking the UN to delegate a "special rapporteur" to ensure that the treaties Canada has signed pertaining to its aboriginal population were being honoured.

Anaya said he had received information suggesting that aboriginal communities were systematically underfunded compared with non-aboriginal towns and cities as a result of unequal funding formulas used by Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada.

He also noted suggestions that the federal government failed to respond adequately to claims for assistance and that it had 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 funding provided to First Nations, an inquiry requested by First Nations themselves.

Anaya said that on Monday, he had asked the Canadian government to respond regarding the accuracy of the allegations and for further details about conditions in First Nations communities.

The special rapporteur said, "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."