01/15/2013 13:20 EST | Updated 03/17/2013 05:12 EDT

Michaëlle Jean compares some First Nations' living conditions to Haiti

Michaëlle Jean, a former governor general, is calling for aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians to "pull together" to put an end to living conditions in some First Nations communities that she says are comparable to what she witnessed in Haiti.

In an interview with CBC Radio Montreal's Daybreak, Jean spoke about the role she played as governor general, the Idle No More movement and the deplorable living standards in many of Canada's aboriginal communities.

Pressed on the issue of whether Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence should end her hunger strike, she declined to answer the question directly.

"You're better off alive to carry out this whole struggle," she said.

Spence, who has been living on a diet of fish broth, vitamins and tea since her hunger strike began on Dec. 11, has insisted she will continue the protest until she gets a meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Gov. Gen. David Johnston in the same room to discuss "treaty issues."

In December, Spence said she was "willing to die for my people and the First Nations people."

Jean said she finds it troubling that so many aboriginal people take their lives because of a sense of powerlessness.

She told CBC's Daybreak that conditions in aboriginal communities, such as a lack of fresh drinking water, are "unacceptable."

"We have a Third World in Canada, and it's with our aboriginal peoples," Jean said.

Jean, who was born in Haiti and came to Canada as a child, is now the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's special envoy to Haiti.

"Unfortunately, you know, there are situations I see in Haiti that are very similar to what I see in our aboriginal communities," she said.

Canadian Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan responded to Jean's comments in a written statement today.

"We recognize that more work needs to be done," he said. "Last Friday's meeting was a positive step in that direction."

The minister cited a number of development projects accomplished by the federal government since 2006, including 30 new schools, more than 10,000 new homes, and investment in safe drinking water systems.

Jean agreed there have been some encouraging initiatives and good examples of economic development in some First Nations' communities but said she's hoping that a "real dialogue" will take place between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians.

She said instead of waiting for aboriginal people to start protesting in the streets, the general public must be more proactive.

"It's not an aboriginal issue, it's a Canadian issue," she said.

As for the Idle No More movement, Jean said she was discouraged to see so much confusion around the meeting with the prime minister last week, a situation she described as "chaotic."

She said the priority should be unity, not only among First Nations people, but also between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people living in Canada.