Martin bill to revive $5 billion aboriginal accord approved in principle

DATE: 2006.10.18 | CATEGORY: National general news | BYLINE: JOAN BRYDEN | PUBLICATION: cpw

OTTAWA (CP) – Former prime minister Paul Martin won approval in principle Wednesday for a private member's bill aimed at resurrecting his cherished Kelowna accord.

Martin's bill, which would compel the Harper government to implement the $5.1- billion aboriginal pact, passed 159-123 with the support of Liberal, New Democrat and Bloc Quebecois MPs.

Conservatives voted against it.

"I think it was very, very important that the House of Commons speak out very loudly in favour of measures" to improve the quality of life of native people, Martin told reporters following the vote.

Given the dismal health and education statistics for aboriginals, Martin said: "I don't understand . . . why the government isn't supporting it. How can they turn their back on such important issues?"

The accord was the product of 18 months of negotiation. It was struck by Martin, premiers, territorial leaders and native leaders on the eve of last winter's election, which turfed Martin's Liberals.

The pact committed them to reduce the gap between natives and non-natives in a host of areas, including education, health care, housing and employment.

Stephen Harper's Conservatives scrapped the accord upon taking power, dismissing it as little more than a pre-election gimmick and claiming that no money had ever been set aside to pay for it.

"That is simply not true," Martin said Wednesday.

"The money was there. And I can tell you there's only one way in which that money is removed and that's if the new minister of finance essentially took it out."

Martin clearly views Kelowna as the crowning achievement of his brief two-year stint as prime minister. He is devoting much of his post-prime ministerial career to aboriginal issues and is determined to revive Kelowna, which he called "really one of the most significant moves ever" to help natives.

The eight contenders to succeed Martin are unanimous in calling for the resurrection of the accord. However, only one – lone Atlantic candidate Scott Brison – was actually present for Wednesday's vote.

Frontrunner Michael Ignatieff issued a statement slamming the Conservatives for caring more about "tax cuts for the wealthy" than helping aboriginals.

Martin's bill will now be referred to the all-party aboriginal affairs committee for study before returning to the Commons for a final vote.

Although the Tories could try to delay the bill, they don't have the numbers to stall it indefinitely or defeat it in the face of unanimous opposition support. Nor could they stop it in the Senate, where Liberals hold the majority of seats.