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UN official blasts 'dire' conditions in Attawapiskat

Two boys walk past substandard housing on their way to play hockey in Attawapiskat on Dec. 17, 2011

Frank Gunn/Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

A United Nations official had harsh words for Ottawa over the housing crisis in Attawapiskat, calling conditions in the first-nations community "dire" and noting that the problem appears to be widespread.

"I have been in communication with the Government of Canada to express my deep concern," James Anaya, the United Nations special rapporteur on indigenous peoples, wrote in a statement on Tuesday.

Attawapiskat declared a state of emergency this fall over a lack of suitable housing, and has been attracting national and international media attention since, as observers compare the conditions in the community to those found in the world's poorest countries.

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Mr. Anaya, whose statement was published on the United Nations website, noted that many residents in the community of 1,800 live in unheated shacks or trailers that lack running water. And he suggested that Attawapiskat isn't the only reserve community in crisis.

He said he has received reports indicating that first-nations communities are systematically under-funded in Canada and wrote a letter to Ottawa outlining his concerns on Monday.

A spokeswoman for Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan quickly fired back, characterizing the special rapporteur's missive as an attention-grabbing stunt.

"Anyone who reads the letter will see it lacks credibility," Michelle Yao wrote in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail. "Our government is focused on the needs of the residents of Attawapiskat – not publicity stunts."

The Conservative government says it has spent about $90-million on Attawapiskat over the past five years, and has blamed the housing crisis on financial mismanagement. Last month, it placed Attawapiskat under third-party management.

First-nations leaders asked the United Nations to monitor Canada's actions on the remote reserve earlier this month.

In his statement, Mr. Anaya noted that aboriginal communities face higher rates of poverty, and poorer health, education and employment outcomes than non-aboriginals in Canada.

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"The social and economic situation of the Attawapiskat seems to represent the condition of many First Nation communities living on reserves throughout Canada, which is allegedly akin to Third World conditions," Mr. Anaya wrote.

Ms. Yao criticized the special rapporteur's letter as full of mistakes. She said it was erroneously addressed to former foreign affairs minister Lawrence Cannon, who was defeated in a federal election earlier this year and replaced by John Baird, but did not specify other errors.

"I think this is a government clutching at straws. They tried to blame the chief, they tried to blame me, now they're trying to blame the UN," NDP MP Charlie Angus said. "I think they need to realize that Canada's credibility is on the line."

Mr. Angus invited the special rapporteur to visit Attawapiskat and see the situation for himself.

Mr. Anaya's statement indicates that he has asked the government to comment on the accuracy of his information and explain what it is doing to improve conditions on reserves. "I will be monitoring closely the situation of the Attawapiskat First Nation and other aboriginal communities in Canada," he wrote.

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