The comeback of Kelowna – editorial – The comeback of Kelowna
July 18, 2008

Last month, Stephen Harper broke ground with the federal government’s historic apology for residential schools. Now, with the country’s premiers looking to him for leadership, he has a chance to do much more to alleviate the plight of Canada’s aboriginal population — by far this country’s greatest policy failing.

Speaking on behalf of all the premiers and territorial leaders in Quebec City this week for their annual meeting, Quebec Premier Jean Charest noted the urgency of building on the momentum created by Mr. Harper’s apology, by focusing on closing the socio-economic gap between aboriginal peoples and other Canadians.

To that end, the premiers have asked the Prime Minister to begin by meeting with them to discuss how they can work together to improve education and reduce child poverty. Their hope is that Mr. Harper can be convinced to work with them to restore the promises laid out in the Kelowna Accord, unanimously adopted by the provinces and five national aboriginal organizations alongside Paul Martin’s Liberal government in 2005.

Despite the Tories’ abandonment of Kelowna as one of their first acts as a government, this is far from a radical proposition. Mr. Harper’s party objected to the $5.1-billion accord because it believed that it lacked detail. But by their own account, the Conservatives supported Kelowna’s goals. “I’ve said categorically we’re supportive of the Kelowna process, we’re supportive of the targets,” then-Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice told aboriginal leaders in March, 2006. “Clearly it’s going to take resources.”

Those resources have yet to adequately flow. Instead, the Tories have turned their attention to accountability. This year, they introduced a requirement that all 2008-09 funding arrangements include a clause enabling Indian Affairs to conduct audits. That followed legislation making the Canadian Human Rights Act applicable on reserves, eliminating an exemption that was supposed to be temporary but lasted three decades.

These are worthwhile measures, and further reforms of native governance are still needed. The fact that the federal government has in the past spent too much money to achieve too small a result for aboriginals does not entitle Ottawa to give up on fighting the social pathologies that deny one group of Canadians the quality of life enjoyed in the rest of the country.

The Kelowna Accord provides a good starting point. It was the culmination of this country’s most extensive consultation and negotiation on aboriginal issues to date. Meeting with the premiers to begin its piecemeal implementation would be better than failing altogether to capitalize on its aims and agreements.

When he came to office, nobody would have expected Mr. Harper to succeed where his predecessors had failed natives. But then, nobody would have expected British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell, who once railed against land treaties, to achieve much at all for natives – and he has arguably done more for them than any other premier. Mr. Harper has helped increase accountability on reserves, and he has raised natives’ hopes with his apology. Now is his chance to ensure their most basic needs are met and that they are provided with a fair shot at Canada’s economic opportunities.

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