Mr. Harper is trashing a historic accord for no good reason

PUBLICATION: GLOBE AND MAIL | DATE: 2006.06.07 | BYLINE: LAWRENCE MARTIN

What are we doing to the million Canadians we've left behind? Giving them the shaft one more time?

The Kelowna accord was a bright new deal for native people. It was signed just last November. Everything seemed fine. Big fanfare, media applause, broad consensus among provinces, territories, native councils, tribes. Not everyone, but about as good as it gets.

The deal was to cover 10 years. The goal was to close the big gap between whites and aboriginals on education, health care, housing, drinking water and more. There were specific targets. The government gave its solemn word.

So what happens? A new government appears. The agreement disappears.

The Conservatives are pulling the plug on it -- without any convincing rationale. Jim Prentice, the Minister of Indian Affairs, nitpicks.

He says it was just a piece of paper (as if that's unusual), that there was no money budgeted (hard to do since the Liberal government lost the election) and it didn't address some structural problems.

He says he will study the situation and come up with some new sort of plan. In other words, back to the drawing board one more time. Since we've only been studying and consulting on these problems since the days of Louis Riel, what's a couple more years? Aboriginal Canadians are the fastest-growing and fastest-sinking segment of our population. Is this not a case of leaving them in the lurch again?

Jim Prentice is a bright guy. He's one of the so-called shining lights in the new government. He has broad experience with first nation files, he's sympathetic to the cause. So why is he walking around in an empty suit?

It would appear to be quite simple. The Prime Minister, the Big Kahuna, has ordered him to junk the Big Kelowna. Just like he did to Rona Ambrose on the Kyoto file. On global warming, given the limp Liberal record, the Conservatives have reason. They have reason, in fact, to junk much of what the previous government did. But with Kelowna, it appears the only serious reason for letting it die is because someone else came up with it.

In his final press conference as prime minister, Paul Martin labelled the Kelowna accord his proudest achievement. That statement may have been enough to seal its death warrant.

Its apparent fate -- some see a remote chance of it getting back on the rails -- drove Mr. Martin to the point of introducing a private member's bill last week to try and save the accord. Confronting Mr. Prentice, he quoted Premier Gordon Campbell of British Columbia.

Mr. Campbell characterized the accord as "Canada's moment of truth . . . our time to do something that has eluded our nation for 138 years . . . All first ministers rose to that moment of truth alongside Canada's aboriginal leaders to undertake the challenge."

Mr. Prentice, who sat in on some of the Kelowna negotiations and seemed reasonably impressed at the time, is not a comfortable sight when cornered -- as he has been many times in the Commons on the file. His eyes bulge, he stands erect and tries to sound authoritative and triumphant, but when he sits down, it's with an exasperated look, like he realizes he has no case.

Facing Mr. Martin, he argued that Kelowna's intentions were good, but that the deal was inconclusive, that it did not involve all of Canada and that it left gaps, such as disagreements over the health aspects of the agreement.

This accord did have the look of being rushed into place before an election. There were gaps. But anyone with a sense of the enormous difficulties involved in gaining a consensus among all the native groups, among all the governments, among all the competing interests, is aware no agreement is going to come without flaws.

Mr. Prentice couldn't explain why all five Conservative provincial premiers agreed to it. He couldn't explain why the nation's native leaders did the same.

Phil Fontaine of the Assembly of First Nations, Clement Chartier of the Metis, Jose Kusugak of the Inuit put out an analysis saying the deal represented two years of tough work, that it was an impressive long-range approach to bringing stability to crisis conditions.

They described what the new government is doing as "unacceptable and a step backward for Canada." A historic accord is being abandoned, they reasoned, "simply because it carries the label of the previous government."

lawrencemartin9@yahoo.ca