Kelowna deal on life support


Susan Riley

The Ottawa Citizen

June 16, 2006


Is the Kelowna accord the most hopeful development ever in Canada's fraught relationship with its aboriginal peoples, or a last-minute political bribe that would only throw good money after bad?

The battle for public opinion is on, but the question may already be academic. The Harper government has sent mixed signals but lately, Conservatives are sounding distinctly cool to the agreement that Paul Martin secured only three days before the last election call. That deal promised $5.1 billion over coming years to provide schools and teachers, housing, health care and economic development funding for native peoples on reserves and in cities.

There were few details on how the money would be spent, but Liberals reject Conservatives' claims that funding was never set aside. It would have been available as soon as native leaders and provincial and federal officials approved specific projects, defenders of the deal insist.

Leaving aside the scope of the accord, it is remarkable for the harmony it achieved. Almost overlooked in the frenzied pre-election atmosphere, the meeting of first ministers and native leaders in Kelowna last November ended in a rare display of generosity and good will. "For me, it is the single most significant, poignant and promising act we have ever been able to accomplish together," said B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell. Manitoba's Gary Doer said Canada made more progress on native issues in one week than in the previous 30 years. Even Ralph Klein beamed beatifically: "Maybe it's a vast sum of money to some provinces, but not to ours."

But perhaps the most joyous reaction came from Phil Fontaine, chief of the Assembly of First Nations, for whom the accord was the culmination of an arduous journey. "Given what I've heard here," he said, "I believe we can turn the corner and eliminate poverty."

A few months later, those sunny hopes are all but dashed. A campaigning Stephen Harper said he supported "the principles and objectives" of Kelowna but was non-committal about the cost. His colleague, Monte Solberg, accused the Liberals of writing the accord "on the back of a napkin on the eve of an election," adding "we're not going to honour that."

The first Conservative budget last month earmarked $450 million over two years for native health, education and housing -- with special emphasis on off-reserve housing. By comparison, Kelowna would have set aside $600 million in the first year alone to launch more far-reaching reforms.

But these differences risk being overwhelmed by a larger question: can any amount of money mend a broken culture, turn around decades of poverty, or even make a dent in what seems an intractable problem? Yes, says Liberal MP Andy Scott, a former minister of Indian affairs who helped negotiate the accord.

Scott notes that in 1952, native Canadians were not even allowed to attend university. In 1967, some 200 graduated. By this year, that number will be 30,000. He makes a passionate and persuasive argument that the federal government hasn't spent too much, but too little, on elementary and secondary education for young native people. And their problems are connected: it is hard to study in overcrowded conditions, hard to find a job without skills, hard to shake off addiction or avoid poor health without professional help and personal hope.

Against the fading victory represented by Kelowna, there is the standoff at Caledonia and a new threat by Manitoba chiefs to disrupt rail traffic this summer to lobby for resolution of land claims. The connection between these events and Kelowna may be indirect, but it should give us pause. For whatever reason, Canada's native people have rarely resorted to violence to press their claims and, when they have, without the deadly consequences we see elsewhere. Maybe they are inured to disappointment.

Supporters of the accord -- arguably, an attempt at the "nation-building" that we like to encourage elsewhere -- need to trumpet success stories. Canadians are too familiar with Davis Inlet and Kashechewan. There is widespread sympathy for the plight of native Canadians -- but skepticism, too, that more money will solve the problem. This creates fertile ground for those who would turn their backs on native poverty, or blow up the reserve system without regard to the disruption and cultural dislocation that would cause.

Native people have a dignified, effective and intelligent leader in Fontaine. Kelowna proves the premiers haven't given up hope that more money, in the right hands, can transform lives. Canada is clearly rich enough. What Kelowna, and the promise it embodies, needs now is unambiguous public support.

Susan Riley's column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

 The Ottawa Citizen 2006