Premiers, aboriginals press Harper to live up to $5B Kelowna Accord

PUBLICATION: New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal | DATE: 2006.07.26 | BYLINE: Keith LeslieCanadian Press

Five national aboriginal leaders emerged from a meeting with Canada's premiers and territorial leaders Tuesday saying they were encouraged by the support they received in their fight to have the federal Conservative government honour the $5-billion Kelowna Accord announced by the Liberals last November.

"We came here seeking support for our issues . . . especially what we consider the single-most important social justice issue in the country, and that is First Nations poverty," said Chief Phil Fontaine of the Assembly of First Nations after meeting the premiers in this western Newfoundland city.

"It's obvious that everyone around the table sees the importance and the legitimacy of the (Kelowna) plan, and that we need to move forward to give effect to the principles set last November."

Chief Patrick Brazeau of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples said he thinks Prime Minister Stephen Harper is right to try a different approach from the Kelowna Accord because the Liberal plan didn't provide help for natives who live off reserves.

"We firmly believe that although the Conservative government has been in power only seven months now, that they will fulfil some of the commitments that were agreed to in Kelowna while putting their own individual spin on some of the priorities that they want to focus on," said Brazeau.

"We're continuing to work with the federal government to ensure we provide hope for aboriginal Canadians in the years to come."

But despite the apparent optimism from the aboriginal leaders, some premiers expressed doubt that the Conservatives would honour the 10-year plan that was designed to address poverty on First Nations reserves.

"I can tell you that this prime minister has his own agenda relative to the way aboriginal people in this country will be treated, and dealt with financially," said Alberta Premier Ralph Klein as he entered Tuesday's meeting.

"I think that the aboriginal people across the nation, as well as all the premiers and territorial leaders, are hoping that he'll rescind his decision to do it his way, and abide by the Kelowna Accord, but I don't think he will."

Said B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell: "I would be much more comfortable if Ottawa had provided a long-term financial framework for the initiatives that have to be undertaken in education and health care and housing.

"We made what I thought was a solemn commitment in November. You know the least that any Canadian can expect is when a government makes a commitment of resources, that those resources are going to flow."

Host Premier Danny Williams called it a "very, very good meeting" with the First Nations leaders and expressed hope the principles of the Kelowna Accord would be honoured.

"I think (there was) a firm commitment from the provinces and the territories that we stand behind the principles, we stand behind the decisions and we stand behind the outcomes that occurred at the first ministers meeting nine months ago."

The Conservatives say the Kelowna Accord was announced in the dying days of the Liberal government just before the federal election, with no cash committed in a budget, and promise to improve housing, education and water standards for First Nations people with their own approach.

The Tories' first budget committed $450 million over two years for Kelowna-type programs. It also earmarked $600 million in one-time housing and territorial funding, but that money was contingent on there being at least $2 billion left in surplus cash when the numbers are finalized in coming months.