House of Commons Speech on the Kelowna Accord Implementation Act

Speaking notes for the Right Honourable Paul Martin P.C., M.P. | Ottawa, Ont. | June 2, 2006

Right Hon. Paul Martin (LaSalle—Émard, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, on too many reserves and in too many cities there is an unacceptable gap between what ought to be the hopeful promise of youth and the experience of aboriginal adulthood, a gap made even more unacceptable by the fact that aboriginal Canadians represent the largest segment of our youth and the fastest growing segment of our population.

We face a moral imperative. In a country as wealthy as ours, a country that is the envy of the world, good health and good education should be givens. They are the pillars underpinning equality of opportunity, which in turn is the foundation on which our society is built.

I rise today because the descendants of the people who first occupied this land deserve to have an equal opportunity to work for and to enjoy the benefits of our collective prosperity. Today the majority do not because of gaps in education and skills, in health care and housing, and because of limited opportunities for employment. Put simply, these gaps between aboriginal Canadians and other Canadians are not acceptable in the 21st century. They never were acceptable.

Last fall the Government of Canada came to an extraordinary agreement with an extraordinary group of people. These included the leadership of the Assembly of First Nations, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the Métis National Council, the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, the Native Women's Association of Canada and the first ministers of Canada's provinces and territories.

Together we developed a plan to narrow and eventually eliminate the gaps that afflict aboriginal Canadians. It became known as the Kelowna accord.

The history of aboriginal communities is heart-rending. For a year and a half, we worked to establish objectives in order to make progress in five crucial areas: education, health, housing, drinking water and economic development. Our goal was to make a real difference, to do everything in our power to change what is a harsh reality for many of our fellow citizens through investments that would bring about real change in the daily lives of aboriginal peoples.

We began by studying the gap in education. Giving young people the chance to reach their potential is essential to all of the other initiatives we set out. This means building schools and training teachers. This means ensuring that students complete their studies. This means making all types of post-secondary education available to young people. This means encouraging them to get professional training so they can get better jobs. We must ensure they have the means to succeed at all of these pursuits.

This is why the government committed to establishing a network of first nations school systems run by aboriginals in cooperation with the provinces, which are responsible for education. Our plan also included making aboriginal, Inuit or Métis culture an integral part of the curriculum in certain urban public schools.

The number of major economic projects underway in the north is staggering. Employment opportunities are abundant, and the number of well-paid jobs is remarkable. Aboriginal people will really be able to benefit from this, but only if training starts now.

This is why we committed to working with our public and private sector partners to create the apprenticeship training programs Canadian aboriginals need to get good jobs. The goal of the Kelowna accord is to close the gap between aboriginals and non-aboriginals within 10 years. The accord will ensure that the aboriginal population has the same proportion of high school graduates as the non-aboriginal population, and it will halve the post-secondary studies gap. That is just the beginning.

In terms of health care, the gaps that persist between aboriginal health and the health of most Canadians are simply unconscionable. The incidence of infant mortality is almost 20% higher for first nations than for the rest of Canada. Suicide can be anywhere from three times to eleven times more common. Teen pregnancies are nine times the national average. It is evident that these heartbreaking statistics and facts speak not just to health care. They speak to the psychic and emotional turmoil in communities, which we must find ways urgently to address.

We started this effort two years ago when aboriginal leaders participated in the first ministers meeting on health care. There we recognized the need for a new health framework and we began work on an unprecedented document, the aboriginal health blueprint, a comprehensive plan for the delivery of reliable health care in every province and territory on and off reserve.

We aimed to double the number of aboriginal health professionals in 10 years from 150 physicians and 1,200 nurses today. We aimed to focus on core measures of health, which we can monitor and improve upon in each community. We set goals to reduce the gaps in key areas, such as infant mortality, youth suicide, childhood obesity and diabetes.

This is only a start. No one will be satisfied until these gaps are closed completely.

We addressed the issue of clean water and housing. Housing is about more than having a roof over one's head. It is about dignity. It is about pride of place. It is about having a stake in the community and an investment in the future. We recognize the need to reduce these gaps significantly with a comprehensive effort to expand the skills of first nations, Inuit and Métis to manage their land, infrastructure and financing. It is estimated, by implementing the Kelowna accord, that we could realistically close the housing gap on reserve by 40% within 5 years and by 80% within 10 years.

The Kelowna accord is a comprehensive 10 year plan to achieve a clear set of goals and targets. We provided $5.1 billion for the first five years. Let me be very clear. The funds were fully provided for in the fiscal framework. The government has the money. It is a fiscal framework, incidentally, which has, since that time, produced a surplus substantially larger than was originally projected. We made it clear that for the second five years of the program, enhanced resources based on the success obtained would be provided.

It is a measurable plan, with targets to be attained and evaluated every two to three years, giving Canadians the ability to hold everyone who is involved accountable. It was developed through a non-partisan, collaborative approach in concert with the aboriginal leadership. All political parties and government across the country, Liberal, Conservative and NDP, were at the table. The Government of Canada, on behalf of the people of Canada, gave its solemn word that we would work to achieve these goals.

Aboriginal Canadians, provinces and territories have made it clear that they want to see a commitment from the new government to honour the Kelowna accord. Despite this, five months later, after inheriting a very healthy balance sheet, one much better than it had anticipated, the new government refuses to say whether it will support the nation's commitment to these goals and objectives. Its budget did not confirm the funds necessary to attain those goals.

Wherein lies the problem? Is it that the government disagrees with the goals that are set out in the accord? Is it that it does not want to work with the provinces, territories and the aboriginal leadership, all of whom share these goals?

On the other hand, the government agrees with the objectives that are laid out in the accord. Why will it not take advantage of a plan that was developed over 18 months by experts in 14 governments across Canada and in our aboriginal communities?

Let us be honest, we have consulted long enough. We have studied enough. The time has come for the government to act. Why will the government not recognize that, because of its lack of commitment, it has already wasted precious months, precious months in which critical progress could have been made toward the attaining of our interim targets?

The goals and objectives of the Kelowna agreement will not go away. This was never a partisan issue. The premier of British Columbia, speaking recently in his legislature, said the following:

“I characterized that agreement as Canada's 'moment of truth.' It was our time to do something that has eluded our nation for 138 years. It was our chance to end the disparities in health, education, housing and economic opportunity. All first ministers rose to that moment of truth alongside Canada's aboriginal leaders to undertake that challenge....”

Similarly, this week during their meeting in Gimli, western premiers said the following:

“Having previously made an extraordinary national commitment, failure to follow through on that commitment will only make us poorer as a nation.”

That is the premiers talking about a commitment.

The premier of Manitoba, who chaired that meeting, added that it would be morally wrong to walk away from the accord.

It is because of this that I have taken the unfortunate necessary step of introducing the bill entitled an act to implement the Kelowna accord. I do so with only one goal in mind, and that is to provide the government and the House with the opportunity to reaffirm what was, by all accounts, a historic agreement for Canada, for Canadians.

The bill is about confirming national commitment lest it be lost. It is also about another potential loss, the loss of the goodwill and the optimism that characterized the Kelowna meeting, the positive spirit, which played a huge role in helping us reach an agreement. All of us at that meeting left imbued with a new sense of hope for the future. That hope was underpinned by an expectation that all the parties to the agreement would live up to their commitment.

Unfortunately, for aboriginal Canadians, new hope has been replaced by doubt. Goodwill has been displaced by worry as the government engages in red herring after red herring. Too many aboriginal Canadians today endured crushing poverty in one of the world's most prosperous countries. That is why I chose, as a new prime minister, to make it a central issue for my government.

The new government is responsible for making a clear commitment to aboriginal peoples. It must respect the promises made and honour the Kelowna accord.

We need a clear commitment, not just in words but in action. We need a clear commitment to meet the challenges facing our aboriginal people by living up to the Kelowna accord.

I ask the government and the ministers here present to rise above partisanship. I ask them and all members of the House, for the sake of our aboriginal people and the future of our great country, to support the bill.