The UN Human Rights Commission issued a report on April 10 pointing out that “poverty, infant mortality, unemployment, morbidity, suicide, criminal detention” and other social problems plague Canadian First Nations, including the Inuit.

Rodolfo Stavenhagen, a special investigator for the UN who focuses on the human rights of indigenous societies, visited Canada for nearly two weeks in 2004, invited by the Canadian government. He interviewed Inuit and other native leaders and pored over many published reports and documents as part of his investigation. The CBC and Yahoo News stories on his report emphasize the damning fact that Canada’s ranking on the UN’s human development scale dropped, according to Stavenhagen, to eighth among 174 countries in a 2003 calculation, but it would now drop to 48th if the plights of the Canadian native peoples were included.

Stavenhagen’s assessment was that “economic, social and human indicators of well-being, quality of life and development are completely lower among aboriginal people than other Canadians.” The story does not come as a surprise to Canadians, according to Bernice Downey, executive director of the National Aboriginal Health Organization, as reported by the Meadow Lake Progress in Saskatchewan. Downey said the probable ranking for Canada points out the “dismal state” of living and health conditions among the First Nations. “If you are poor, chances are you are unhealthy,” she said. Food security among the Inuit has a major impact on their health, in her opinion. “Food quality and access [for the Inuit] is not what it used to be.”

Downey blames the centuries of colonization and the policy of sending children to residential schools for many of the social problems in the aboriginal communities, such as the very high suicide rate. According to the Progress, Inuit suicide rates have reached the astonishing level of 80 deaths per 100,000 people per year.

In response to all this, Yahoo News reports, Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin initiated a Canada-Aboriginal Peoples Roundtable as “the centerpiece” of his government’s efforts to address the social and health problems of the Canadian natives. According to CBC North, the spokesperson for Indian and Northern Affairs promised that the government would spend $400 million over the next five years to address aboriginal health issues. She termed the health problems for the aboriginal peoples “not acceptable.”

The Yahoo News story gives some details about Stavenhagen’s document, in which he reports that Inuit leaders in Canada expressed their concerns about their health problems, the suicide situation, housing, and education, all of which have “reached crisis proportions and are not being addressed by the federal government.” An “Advanced Edited Version” of the report, dated 2 December 2004, which as of this date loads as an HTML document (but not as a PDF) from the Google search page, provides the text of the report which is titled, “Indigenous Issues: Human Rights and Indigenous Issues. Report … Mission to Canada.”

It gives details that were omitted by the news articles. It says, for instance, in paragraph 39 that Inuit health is way behind that of other Canadians and life expectancy is 10 years lower than the rest of the country. Furthermore, “many health indicators are getting worse. Arctic research shows that changes in traditional diets lead to increased health problems, particularly of mental health.”

Paragraph 51 of the report provides an overview of the Inuit problems with global warming, the threat to the Inuit food supplies, and the danger of persistent organic pollutants. It quotes the Chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, Sheila Watt-Cloutier of Nunavut, who says “a poisoned Inuit child means a poisoned Arctic, means a poisoned planet.” Stavenhagen obviously shares her concern.

Whether the Canadian government will follow up its promises with decisive actions remains to be seen.