Campbell 'blisters' federal Conservatives to applause all round


Vaughn Palmer

Vancouver Sun

Friday, May 05, 2006


VICTORIA - B.C.'s aboriginal leaders were contemplating how to express their disappointment over the federal budget when there was a call from the office of Premier Gordon Campbell.

Campbell, too, was "disappointed." The new national government had failed to pick up Ottawa's share of the 10-year accord with first nations, signed just last fall in Kelowna.

The premier was planning a statement in the provincial legislature.

He figured his comments would carry additional weight if first nations leaders were to join the MLAs on the floor of the house when he delivered his remarks. Would they come?

That was the extent of the invitation, according to Ed John of the First Nations Summit. No details of what the premier intended to say. No promise of consultation on the text.

But would they come? They did.

As a measure of Campbell's progress in improving relations with the aboriginal community, when he delivered his statement in the house Thursday afternoon, five native leaders -- Ed John, Stewart Phillip, Shawn Atleo, Mike Retasket and Doug Kelly -- were there on the floor, listening attentively.

It was, as John characterized it later, "a bit of a blistering" for the new national government.

"Canada's moment of truth," the B.C. premier called the accord. "It was chance to do something that had eluded our grasp as a nation for 138 years -- to end the disparities in health, education, housing and economic opportunity."

The accord "was the product of unprecedented government-to-government collaboration," Campbell went on to say.

Ten provinces, three territories and the federal government embraced a 10-year, $5-billion effort to close the gap between the country's aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities.

More than dollars, "the honour of the Crown is at stake," Campbell declared. "The trust relationship that was at the core of the Kelowna meeting demands decisive action and unflagging affirmation . . . No more excuses."

He closed by invoking what might be called the spirit of Kelowna: "First ministers from all the provinces, all the territories and the federal government came together. They lit a torch, and that was a torch of hope. It was a beacon that we should hold high."

With that, the premier took his seat, triggering a remarkable display.

Standing ovation from government. Standing ovation from the New Democrats. "We need to speak with one voice in this province," as Opposition house leader Mike Farnworth put it.

The first nations leaders stood and applauded the premier's statement as well, ignoring the protocol that guests on the floor of the house are seen but never heard.

Some folks in the public galleries applauded, too, again in defiance of house rules.

A remarkable show of unity, reinforced a few hours later when MLAs on both sides spoke in favour of an Opposition motion in defence of the Kelowna accord.

What it all means is another matter. For the Kelowna accord is perceived differently in Ottawa than it is here in B.C.

The new federal government views the accord, signed on the eve of the last election call, as a last desperate act of a soon-to-be-beaten prime minister.

"Something crafted at the last moment on the back of a napkin," in the contemptuous (and contemptible) comment of one of the Conservatives.

That comment was especially hurtful to aboriginal leaders, who spent 18 months working on the accord, often to the detriment of pursuing other objectives with senior governments.

Campbell, too, invested a lot in the deal. He did all of the liaison work with other premiers and territorial leaders, pulling together a consensus, presiding as host of the gathering in Kelowna.

He'd rather all that effort did not go to waste, especially as his own government has worked so hard on what it calls the "new relationship" with first nations.

His plea for Ottawa to give the accord a chance didn't make reference to the continuing showdown with natives in Caledonia, Ont. But that kind of unravelling must have been on his mind as well.

Still, Campbell left plenty of room his speech for the federal government to meet the province halfway.

He avoided citing a specific shortfall in funding, saying it would be enough if the commitments in the accord were "met one way or another."

He recognized, too, that "the new government may well have its own ideas on how to best advance the objectives set out in that document."

There was room for "new approaches, new partnerships, new revenue sharing," for "new vehicles" and "new flexibility" -- above all, Campbell said, "significant room for hope."

So a bit of a blistering, all right. But nothing like an irreparable breach between the federal and provincial governments.