Martin to focus on aboriginal issues: Former PM pushing to keep Kelowna Accord alive but Tories didn't include it in budget

PUBLICATION: Vancouver Sun | DATE: 2006.06.02 | BYLINE: Elizabeth Thompson | SOURCE: Montreal Gazette

OTTAWA -- It would be "immoral" for the Conservative government to scrap the Kelowna Accord designed to close the gap between aboriginal Canadians and the rest of the population, former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin said Thursday.

Martin insisted the future of aboriginal Canadians is one of the key challenges for Canada in coming years.

Parliament is today scheduled to begin studying Martin's private member's bill designed to pressure the government into implementing the deal.

"The gaps in health care and in education, in housing, in drinking water between aboriginal Canadians and the rest of Canadians is simply unacceptable," Martin said Thursday as he began the fight to defend one of the key accomplishments of his administration. "The highest level of infant mortality, the highest level of diabetes, the highest level of high school dropouts. This was never acceptable but it simply is not acceptable in the 21st century in what is one of the richest countries in the world.

"When you consider that aboriginal Canadians are the youngest segment of our population, any nation with a sense of what it is to be a nation will not allow that to happen to the youngest portion of its population."

However, support from the Conservatives for Martin's bill is unlikely. Deidra McCracken, press secretary to Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice, referred to Kelowna as the "so-called accord," and said Prentice does not believe any binding agreement was reached at the November meeting.

Martin, however, insisted there was a deal and says that those who vote against his bill will have to justify it.

"Kelowna is essentially about narrowing and eliminating gaps in health care and education, housing and clean water. You're either for that or you're against it and if you're against it you've got to justify 'Why do I believe that one segment of Canadians are not entitled to the same health outcomes, the same life expectancy and others," he said.

Speaking in his Parliament Hill office overlooking the Outaouais River, one of the first interviews he has granted since leaving office, Martin appeared relaxed and looking towards the future.

The same passion with which he undertook the Herculean task of balancing Canada's books as finance minister and then applied to running the country as prime minister will now be focused on things he cares deeply about, like setting up a new L-20 League of Nations or bringing equity to Canada's aboriginal peoples.

"The future of aboriginal Canadians is going to be one of the issues to which I am going to devote the rest of my life."

Among his plans is a foundation devoted to aboriginal issues.

However, Martin's more immediate priority is his concern Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government is planning to scrap the Kelowna Accord, a $5-billion deal signed last November to close the gap between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians in a variety of areas including health care, education, housing, clean water and employment.

"Kelowna was an agreement that was 18 months in the making," he said. "It is a comprehensive agreement with a set of five- and 10-year goals."

It was clear when Finance Minister Jim Flaherty tabled the government's maiden budget that the money necessary to implement the Kelowna Accord was nowhere to be found.

"We provided the money for it in the first five years and the government did not in its budget confirm that spending," said Martin, pointing out that time needed to achieve the accord's goals is being lost. "The money was there and the government has waffled in its view on the goal and objectives."

Martin said starting work on redressing the gap between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians was the first thing he did when he became prime minister.

"My goal was pretty clear," he explained. "I said, 'If I could as finance minister set the goals by which we eliminated the deficit, surely the Government of Canada can set the goals by which we can eliminate this gap between aboriginal Canadians and other Canadians in terms of health care and education."

Martin said he sees the Kelowna Agreement as a starting point and had hoped to go further.

"You had this unprecedented coming together of provincial and territorial governments, aboriginal leadership and the federal government and the purpose of this bill is to basically express the will of the House that the government carry through."

Prentice has said the Conservatives support the targets and objectives outlined in the Kelowna Accord but has been reluctant to commit the government to implementing the deal.