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Close the gap between Canada and its aboriginal people: AFN chief

Perry Bellegarde elected as national chief of the Assembly of First Nations last year. He has called for Ottawa to close the gaps between Canada and its aboriginal people.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The leader of the country's largest aboriginal group is calling on Ottawa to close the gap between Canada and its aboriginal people as the UN prepares to adopt a new set of sustainable development goals.

Perry Bellegarde said in an interview Wednesday that the federal government should invest more in education, training and housing to bring conditions for aboriginal Canadians in line with the rest of the country. The National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations said he plans to bring that message Thursday to a gathering of international development experts and non-governmental organizations in Gatineau, Que.

Mr. Bellegarde's comments come as the United Nations prepares to adopt a new set of global targets to replace eight millennium development goals when they expire at the end of this year. The new objectives will cover 17 target areas, ranging from ending poverty to combatting climate change and reducing inequality. Unlike the previous goals, the new targets have been explicitly developed to be universally applicable, which means wealthy countries like Canada will be expected to work toward achieving them alongside lower-income countries.

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Canada regularly places well on the UN human development index, which measures living conditions in all countries. But development experts say that inequalities within the country – particularly in relation to aboriginal Canadians – could come under scrutiny when the next set of global-development goals come into effect in 2016.

Mr. Bellegarde said that if the indicators used for the human development index were applied to aboriginal Canadians, they would place 63rd on the list. Canada as a whole ranked eighth last year on the UN index.

"In Canada, it's all about closing the gap, and right now, there's a huge gap between indigenous peoples and non-indigenous peoples," Mr. Bellegarde said. He said the new development goals could help place added pressure on the government to do more to implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Shannon Kindornay, a professor with Carleton University's Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, said there is a growing recognition that many international challenges are applicable to all countries. But while Ottawa has committed to the principle of universality in the development goals, she said, the idea has not yet been put into practice at the domestic level.

Prof. Kindornay said living conditions for Canada's aboriginal population are likely the single biggest issue that will need to be addressed for Canada to apply the new sustainable-development goals at home. "There is no question that on nearly every indicator of social, economic and environmental well-being, that the aboriginal population in Canada falls behind," she said.

A spokeswoman for Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt said Wednesday that the government is making strategic investments aimed at improving overall well-being of First Nations people. "We will continue to bring forward concrete measures," Andrea Richer wrote in an e-mail.

A government statement posted online earlier this year said Ottawa is committed to pursuing a realistic, focused and measurable set of post-2015 development goals that address social, economic and environmental issues.

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Mr. Bellegarde, who has spoken about the UN rankings in the past, said he would raise the matter in a speech he plans to deliver on Thursday at a conference co-hosted by the Canadian Council for International Co-operation and the Canadian Association of International Development Professionals.

"There's a connection," Mr. Bellegarde said. "Because you know, when you start looking at ensuring sustainable energy for all, reducing inequality within and among countries … you can see linkages to the UN declaration. Because that's what it's all about."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Kim Mackrael has been a reporter for The Globe and Mail since 2011. She joined the Ottawa bureau Sept. 2012. More

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