Canada has made "notable efforts" to improve the social and economic well-being of indigenous people, but needs to do much more to improve their overall living conditions, says a report by a United Nations human rights envoy.

"There are daunting challenges and in many respects… there is a crisis among aboriginal communities in terms of their basic necessities," said James Anaya, the UN's special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, in an interview with CBC News on Monday.

"The numerous initiatives that have been taken at the federal and provincial-territorial levels to address the problems faced by indigenous peoples have been insufficient," Anaya said in his report.

The UN envoy found that:

  • The "well-being gap" between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people in Canada is not improving.
  • Treaty and aboriginal claims remain "persistently" unresolved.
  • Indigenous women and girls "remain vulnerable to abuse."
  • There appear to be "high levels of distrust" among aboriginal people toward all levels of government.

Anaya spent nine days last October visiting aboriginal communities and their leaders as well as government representatives across Canada to compile the report.

He urges the federal government to:

  • Consult aboriginal people and address any ​"any outstanding concerns" related to Bill C-33, the government's First Nations education bill
  • Launch "a comprehensive, nationwide inquiry" into the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women.
  • Ensure the mandate of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is extended "for as long as may be necessary" for it to complete its work.
  • Take "urgent action" to address the housing crisis both on and off reserves.
  • Provide "sufficient funding" for services both on and off reserves, including in areas of education, health and child welfare.
  • Work with provincial and aboriginal governments to improve "their co-ordination in the delivery of services."

'Positive steps'

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt said in a written statement issued Monday that "despite these challenges, the federal government has taken many steps "to improve the overall well-being and prosperity of aboriginal people in Canada."

"Our government is proud of the effective and incremental steps taken in partnership with aboriginal communities. We are committed to continuing to work with our partners to make significant progress in improving the lives of aboriginal people in Canada. We will review the report carefully to determine how we can best address the recommendations," Valcourt said.

Anaya does acknowledge in his report that Canada has taken "positive steps" to improve the relationship with aboriginal people, such as:

  • Canada has made "notable efforts" to address treaty and aboriginal claims and to improve the social and economic well-being of indigenous people.
  • Canada has "adopted the goal of reconciliation" to repair the legacy of past injustices and taken steps toward that goal.
  • Canada has put in place "numerous laws, policies and programs," which, at least in theory, "can be pointed to as good practices."
  • Canada was one of the first countries to enshrine indigenous peoples' rights in its Constitution.

"Despite positive steps, daunting challenges remain. Canada faces a continuing crisis when it comes to the situation of indigenous peoples of the country," Anaya said.

Critics call for a national inquiry

Monday’s UN report comes at a fragile time for relations between the federal government and First Nations. 

The government put “on hold” its prized but controversial First Nations education bill following the sudden resignation of Shawn Atleo as national chief for the Assembly of First Nations. 

Bill C-33 will remain on hold until the AFN “clarifies” its position on the bill, which it is expected to do during a special assembly of national chiefs in Ottawa on May 27.

While the federal government has to date refused to launch a national inquiry into the case of missing and murdered aboriginal women, the RCMP said this month there are about 1,186 recorded incidents by police of aboriginal homicides and unresolved missing women investigations. 

That report is expected to be released soon.

Both the NDP and Liberals are calling on the government to heed Anaya's recommendations and launch a national public inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women.

NDP aboriginal affairs critic Jean Crowder blamed the federal government for not taking more action sooner.

"Study after study, report after report find that investments are needed to improve the quality of life for indigenous peoples in Canada, especially in housing, child welfare and education, yet this government continues to let funding trickle out."

Carolyn Bennett, the Liberal critic for aboriginal affairs, said in a written statement that Anaya's report reflects "the serious and persistent crisis in outcomes for indigenous peoples in this country."

“The government needs to engage with indigenous peoples as partners to create real progress on the appalling conditions for far too many of these communities," Bennett said.

Pipeline concerns

The report also recommends the government get consent from aboriginal groups before moving forward with resource extraction projects on land subject to aboriginal claims. That would include pipeline projects currently in the works, such as Enbridge's controversial Northern Gateway pipeline. 

"While indigenous peoples potentially have much to gain from resource development within their territories, they also face the highest risks to their health, economy, and cultural identity from any associated environmental degradation," reads the unedited version of the preliminary report.

"Perhaps more importantly, indigenous nations’ efforts to protect their long-term interests in lands and resources often fit uneasily into the efforts by private non-indigenous companies, with the backing of the federal and provincial governments, to move forward with natural resource projects."

According to the aboriginal affairs minister, "the responsible development of our natural resources is good for all Canadians and provides an unprecedented opportunity for First Nations."

"In fact, over 32,000 First Nations people are employed in the natural resources sector, making it the largest private employer of First Nations people in Canada. Over $650 billion worth of major projects are projected in the next 10 years and First Nations communities are well positioned to benefit from these opportunities," Valcourt said in a written statement on Monday.

Anaya said that the concerns of aboriginal people merit "higher priority" at all levels of government noting that the relationship between aboriginal people and the government is perhaps even more "strained" since the last UN special rapporteur visited in 2003.

With files from Trinh Theresa Do