A coalition of grassroots groups says Canada won't meet the Sustainable Development Goals it is trying to attain by 2030 as part of a United Nations initiative to bridge inequities around the world.

"Various issues continue to hinder progress toward a truly inclusive and effective path forward," said Siyu Chen, who spoke at a UN meeting Wednesday on behalf of Canadian non-governmental organizations in New York City.

"Canada is not set to achieve the SDGs within the next seven years."

The goals are a series of benchmarks around issues such as poverty and gender equality.

In 2015, the newly elected Liberal government was among 193 UN states that endorsed a goal to meet all 17 targets by 2030, with Canada putting a focus on gender equality, climate action and reconciliation.

In addition to pursuing improvements at home, the states agreed to fund programs that aim to help developing countries meet their own targets.

Now, just past the halfway point to those goals, the Canadian government says it is making good headway within its own borders.

"We've made important progress, but there is more to do," Social Development Minister Karina Gould told a voluntary review body in New York City on Wednesday.

Gould credited the Canada child benefit and daycare reform for helping drop poverty and narrow a gender gap in employment. She also highlighted measures to preserve areas with high biodiversity.

Grassroots groups say #Canada won't meet UN Sustainable Development Goals, lacks data. #CDNPoli #SDGs #GenderEquality #ClimateAction #Reconciliation

Yet a coalition of civil-society groups attending the review challenged Gould, telling the meeting that Canada lacks adequate data and consultation procedures to get a sense of how different groups are faring, particularly Indigenous Peoples and those with disabilities.

Chen spoke on behalf of non-governmental organizations, including several that attended the session, such as the Cooperation Council of Ontario and International Longevity Centre Canada.

The voluntary national review of Canada's efforts invited comments through an online process.

But Chen said that process only lasted 37 days and was not well-publicized. This created a "lack of accessible consultation designed to reach those furthest behind, especially people with multiple marginalized identities," she said.

"They have the lived experience needed to create holistic solutions and identify policy focuses."

Adam Houston, a humanitarian studies professor at Royal Roads University, said in an interview that Canada's tracking indicators show a regression in some areas, particularly around opioid usage and teens vaping.

"Health is really an area where Canada is not doing very well, in terms of meeting its own targets," Houston said.

Tuberculosis is on the rise in Canada, which Houston argued is the end result of insufficient housing and poor access to drugs deemed essential by the World Health Organization.

And Canada lacks sufficient data to assess its own goals on premature death rates and vaccine uptake.

"Often, the SDGs are framed … in this overseas aid and development context, and not so much as something that Canada actually needs to pay attention to itself," he said.

"It's really a sign that Canada needs to be paying attention at home as well. You'd think things like a pandemic would be a reminder that issues like health aren't things that are easily divided into domestic and global."

In New York City, Gould said she invites criticism from civil society and pledged to follow up with the groups.

"We have a very strong delegation from Canada," she said. "There are a lot of learnings from this (review) process."

Prior to Chen's comments, Gould offered that the government would "conduct our own review of the Canadian indicator framework and will draw on more data sources to reduce gaps in reporting on the SDGs."

Canada's auditor general includes an assessment of progress on the SDGs in recurring reviews of government programs.

Recent audits have found that Ottawa is not collecting certain data related to the goals. It is not counting the role of forests in its greenhouse gas tallies. Nor is it collecting detailed statistics on the rate of chronic homelessness in Canadian cities.

Heads of government are expected to gather at UN headquarters on Sept. 18 to take stock of the Sustainable Development Goals, which could include funding pledges from presidents and prime ministers for projects abroad and in their own countries.

United Nations agencies have said that countries were making momentum toward these goals before the COVID-19 pandemic. They were successfully lowering the death rate for newborns, pregnant women and people living in extreme poverty.

But the agencies and numerous charities are warning that because states have since diverted spending to respond to the pandemic, armed conflicts and a series of natural disasters linked to climate change, there have been fresh setbacks.

This spring, Canada joined many richer countries in cutting its foreign-aid budget.

The move has some charities warning they will be forced to shut down long-standing projects abroad, including ones that work towards development goals such as increasing the number of girls who attend school.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 19, 2023.

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