Kelowna Accord down, but not out

Western premiers launch First Nations summits to keep the deal alive

Les Leyne

Times Colonist

May 31, 2006


Premier Campbell succumbed briefly to the "fiscal imbalance" fever that is sweeping through Gimli like a ghastly pandemic, but rallied with a few game words about the Kelowna Accord.

The western premiers are meeting in that Manitoba resort town. They have their own agenda and may or may not have gone once over lightly on the equalization debate.

But assorted other premiers are going out of their way to make it a priority these days.

And the thinking in those camps is that if CBC Newsworld's cameras are at Gimli, a visit to the shore of Lake Winnipeg is in order.

That's why Ontario's Dalton McGuinty -- hardly a western premier -- will touch down there today. It's a stop on what someone called his national "anti-equalization" tour, the worst name in political touring history.

The federal program transfers tax revenue every which way around the confederation in an effort to even out the provinces' finances. It's complicated and unfair at times, but the premiers could hold hands, set out for Ottawa on foot, talk about it all the way there and still not reach much of a consensus on what to do about it.

The last words of host premier Gary Doer going in to the opening meeting were: "Equalization is not on the agenda." So naturally, the first questions for premiers coming up for air Tuesday were about equalization.

Campbell got some face time on CBC and acknowledged there's no question equalization is on people's minds. He tried to dismiss it as best he could. "We've got a number of other issues that we've got to face ... From my perspective, it is not high on our agenda. There's work to be done there for sure, but there's lots of other important information we're dealing with today, too."

With equalization fever in the air, that clearly wasn't good enough. He was pressed on the issue and delivered these thoughts: "I think it's important to note there's a lot of wrong language that goes on here. For example, there's no such thing as a have-not province in Canada. Everybody that lives in Canada has a very good quality of life."

That's probably startling news to most of the people on native reserves, which ironically was the issue that Campbell really wanted to talk about.

But "wrong language" can pop up anywhere when it comes to equalization.

He was on more solid ground when it came to the Kelowna Accord, that national deal signed by all provincial leaders and former prime minister Paul Martin last fall, just before Martin's government fell.

"The honour of the Crown" was at stake in Kelowna, Campbell said then.

All the governments committed to a 10-year plan to tackle the social problems facing natives, but the new Conservative federal government ignored the entire enterprise in their first budget.

Western premiers re-affirmed their support for the accord Tuesday.

"Having previously made an extraordinary national commitment, failure to follow through on that commitment will only make us poorer as a nation," said their communique.

With federal commitment up in the air, their stand boils down to this: They're going to hold lots of meetings in the next while in an effort to spur the Conservatives into making up their minds to endorse the accord.

A summit meeting in Saskatchewan on economic opportunities for natives is set for January 2007. The agenda is all about opportunities, partnerships and training.

The premiers are also working with the native leadership to hold a summit in coming months on aboriginal women's issues, particularly violence against women.

Campbell also invited them all to B.C. this fall to yet another summit, this one on aboriginal health. That's three summit meetings in the next seven months. Also in the works is a meeting of provincial aboriginal affairs ministers with all the big native organizations.

That's probably enough meetings to start some kind of bandwagon effect.

Right after the accord was signed a Conservative critic dismissed it as being written on the back of a napkin.

The first Conservative budget increased funding for native programs, but avoided any reference to the accord.

Now the Conservatives are talking about closing the same social gaps the accord was aiming at.

Most of the summit meetings confirmed Tuesday were agreed to in the itemized work sheet that accompanied the agreement in Kelowna. The accord flourished there in November, hung in the balance during the election, and went down for the count in the budget.

Now it's up and limping around the ring. If it doesn't get caught up in all the manoeuvring around the fiscal imbalance, it might last another few rounds.

 Times Colonist (Victoria) 2006