High time to keep Kelowna promises

TheGlobeandMail.com – opinion/editorial – High time to keep promises
July 21, 2008

Last week, after a meeting with aboriginal leaders, the premiers called upon Stephen Harper to meet with them to discuss native poverty and education, and to revive the aims and objectives of the Kelowna Accord. Since Mr. Harper has now committed to a First Ministers meeting in the fall, albeit with a vague mandate, there are signs he has taken heed. Given his own words mere weeks before he led his party to power, he really should have little choice.

On Jan. 6, 2006, Mr. Harper sent a letter to Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine responding to a questionnaire on native policy issues. In it, he quibbles with the $5.1-billion agreement’s lack of specifics, noting that “the First Ministers Meeting did not arrive at a concerted federal plan to address the 5 to 10-year objectives,” or at how the allocated funds would be divided amongst the provinces and aboriginal organizations. But he is clear that he supports the accord in principle. And he promises “another meeting with First Ministers and National Aboriginal Leaders within the next two or three years to measure the progress made on the Kelowna commitments.”

With that time period nearly expired, no such meeting has taken place. But then, there would be little point in measuring “the progress on the Kelowna commitments,” as the Prime Minister had shown little interest in living up to them since taking office.

Mr. Harper is clearly not unsympathetic to the plight of aboriginals. He has delivered a historic apology for residential schools, and his government has made concrete efforts to improve accountability in native governance. The acceleration of land claims settlements seems to be a priority, as does improving the quality of drinking water on reserves. But despite promising in his letter to Mr. Fontaine to “improve the living conditions of Aboriginal Canadians in terms of health, economic opportunity, community safety, infrastructure, education and social services,” he has declined to build upon the agreement aimed at achieving those goals. Nor has he come up with an alternative plan.

“I think our position on the Kelowna Accord has been clear and consistent and is unlikely to change,” Mr. Harper’s communications director, Kory Teneycke, said last week in response to the premiers’ call to revive it. He seemed to be referring to the Tories’ recent contempt for Kelowna, typified by the parliamentary secretary to the Indian Affairs minister dismissing it as “a press release.”

But if the Prime Minister truly wishes to be “consistent,” and more importantly to begin taking major strides toward improving the quality of life on reserves, he will begin to act on the promises of his 2006 letter. There need not be a carbon copy of the Kelowna Accord, which was perhaps more notable for the consensus around it than the content in it. But when the First Ministers meet, its aims and objectives should be their first priority.

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