Waiting for betrayal on aboriginal accord
----- Original Message -----
From: RUSSELL DIABO
Sent: Tuesday, March 07, 2006 6:51 AM
Subject: Waiting for betrayal on aboriginal accord
Waiting for betrayal on aboriginal accord
From Tuesday's Globe and Mail
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Is the new Conservative government prepared to break the cycle of poverty and exclusion that bedevils Canada's native population? Or will it send them, once again, to the back of the queue?
Days before the last federal election, Paul Martin concluded an agreement with provincial, territorial and aboriginal leaders to set aside the chronic quarrelling over land claims and competing jurisdictions, and to focus, instead, on improving the lives of Canada's native peoples.
The deal was expensive: The federal government agreed to commit almost $5.1-billion over five years to improve the quality of education, housing, health care and economic opportunities on and off reserve.
The benchmarks set down in the accord were unrealistically optimistic, but the idea was sound: targeted investment aimed at producing concrete results within a specific time frame.
Then the Conservatives won the election, and the whole thing went out the window.
Or did it?
Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice has publicly endorsed the principles contained in the Kelowna accord.
But he is not convinced that the necessary steps have been taken to ensure the money is spent effectively. And no one in the government is willing to say whether the $5-billion allotted by the Liberals is too much or too little.
Most people, including some aboriginal leaders, are prepared to cut the Tories some slack while they figure out how to implement the accord. For one thing, native school boards need to be set up, along with performance standards and reliable testing that will make it possible to measure the quality of the education native children are receiving.
And a regulatory framework needs to be in place before a new program kicks off that will permit residents on reserves to purchase their homes, in a modified form of private ownership.
In the end, however, only one thing will matter: whether or not the money is there. The Liberal plan called for an $812-million investment this fiscal year, rising to $830-million next year and peaking at $1.2-billion in 2010. Either Finance Minister Jim Flaherty plans to honour this funding formula, or he doesn't. If he doesn't, then he must provide one of his own; otherwise, it will be clear that the Harper government plans to let the Kelowna accord starve to death.
"We need to see something specific in the Speech from the Throne," Phil Fontaine, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said in an interview yesterday. And "there has to be a very clear commitment in the budget." Otherwise, Mr. Prentice's protestations of good intentions will mean nothing.
Five billion dollars is a lot of money for a government whose election promises already stretch fiscal probity to the very limit. Stephen Harper and Mr. Flaherty might be tempted to delay any funding commitments related to Kelowna for a couple of years, while the government studies and consults. That would be a terrible mistake.
The single greatest curse afflicting Canada's aboriginal people is that native leaders and politicians waste time and money haggling over this land claim and that treaty, while housing deteriorates, wells become polluted, and young natives drift into abuse and despair.
In Kelowna, everyone finally declared enough is enough. All sides resolved to spend their energies on improving the aboriginal quality of life, on breaking the cycles, on finally going to work on closing the gaps.
If Kelowna is lost, then that opportunity is lost, an act of faith is betrayed, and there is nothing to look forward to except a return to the bad old ways.
Which is why we must pray that the wording on aboriginal commitments in the April Speech from the Throne is big and bold, and that the money in the budget that follows gives meaning to those words.
Because Kelowna is the last, best hope to improve the lives of natives in this generation.
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