PM faces fight over native deal


May 31, 2006. 01:00 AM


 If Prime Minister Stephen Harper is thinking of tearing up the aboriginal accord entered into last year by his predecessor Paul Martin, he may face more opposition than he anticipates.

Specifically, he will be up against the four western premiers.

The four are as diverse as their provinces: two New Democrats (Manitoba's Gary Doer and Saskatchewan's Lorne Calvert), a Conservative (Alberta's Ralph Klein), and a Liberal (British Columbia's Gordon Campbell).

On issues ranging from equalization to Kyoto, they have starkly different views.

But all their provinces have one thing in common: substantial native populations.

Accordingly, as part of the annual western premiers' conference here in the Manitoba resort town of Gimli this week, the four scheduled a meeting with aboriginal leaders.

And afterward, they all reaffirmed their support for the aboriginal deal, known as the Kelowna Accord — after the British Columbia city in which it was signed by Martin, the 10 premiers, and aboriginal leaders last November.

The accord would overhaul native health, education, housing and economic development programs, with promises of more self-government and an injection of $5 billion in additional federal spending in the area.

Harper has not said that he would abrogate the deal, but he withheld the funding for it in this month's federal budget pending an internal review.

"Western premiers agree that all governments will have to work together with the aboriginal leadership, both regional and national, to ensure we are going to deliver on our word," says the communiqué issued by the four premiers yesterday. "Having previously made an extraordinary national commitment, failure to follow through on that commitment will only make us poorer as a nation."

While issuing this warning, however, the western premiers also expressed optimism that Harper would eventually come around to their view and accept the accord — perhaps with some minor changes.

Also making optimistic noises was Phil Fontaine, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. After meeting with the western premiers on Monday, Fontaine suggested there could be even more money coming from the Harper government than Martin had pledged.

"It may be $10 billion," he said.

Fontaine and the western premiers have all been talking to Jim Prentice, federal minister of Indian affairs.

A former Progressive Conservative, Prentice is thought to be sympathetic to aboriginal aspirations.

"I think Minister Prentice is willing to work with us," said B.C.'s Campbell.

Underlying this confidence in Prentice, however, is a lingering concern about the Reform element in the Harper government — including the Prime Minister himself.

The old Reform party, of which Harper was a founding member, was hostile to aboriginal claims of special status and demands for more money.

With one eye on this political history, aboriginal leaders pushed hard last fall to conclude a deal with Ottawa and the provinces while Martin and the federal Liberals were still in office.

When it appeared the opposition might gang up on the Martin government and force an election to be called in advance of the Kelowna conference last November, Fontaine and other aboriginal leaders lobbied NDP Leader Jack Layton to back off.

Now that the Liberals are out of office in Ottawa and the Conservatives are in, however, aboriginal leaders and the premiers are hoping they can cajole Harper into line on Kelowna.

Noting that Canada has once again been cited by a United Nations agency for its poor treatment of aboriginal people, Doer said: "The Kelowna Accord could never deal with 120 years of Canadian history, but at least it was a start."

Such appeals might succeed, but Harper has shown no compunction about unilaterally abrogating other deals signed by his predecessors, such as the Kyoto accord and the day-care agreement with the provinces.

Even last year's deal between Ottawa and Ontario to deliver more federal funding to the province now appears to be in doubt, notwithstanding the fact that Harper swore to uphold it in a letter to Premier Dalton McGuinty five days before the January election.

So it would not be a surprise to see Harper and the Conservatives backtracking on the Kelowna Accord. They just shouldn't expect to do it without a fight.

Ian Urquhart's provincial affairs column appears Monday, Wednesday and Saturday.