Conservative leader pledges support for northern commitments

Stephen Harper is the only federal leader to respond to a December letter from the premiers of Canada’s three northern territories.

Stephen Harper is the only federal leader to respond to a December letter from the premiers of Canada’s three northern territories.

The letter, from Yukon premier Dennis Fentie, Northwest Territories premier Joe Handley and Nunavut premier Paul Okalik, asked all four federal leaders to clarify their views on four key northern issues.

The premiers mentioned federal funding for the North; a strategy for northern development; devolution and land claims and aboriginal issues as areas that “will have significant implications as we work towards building a stronger Canadian federation.”

Conservative Party leader Harper, who currently leads Prime minister Paul Martin in the polls, replied to the premiers’ concerns on January 6.

Without making any hard commitments, Harper promised support for a base-plus-per-capita funding arrangement that the Liberal government established in November. It replaces the current territorial formula financing arrangement that the premiers say is outdated.

“We recognize the unique circumstances faced in the North regarding the delivery of programs and services to residents and we are prepared to discuss the challenges regarding the costs and circumstances for the delivery of those services,” said Harper in his letter.

“We are prepared to discuss future arrangements with the territories in order to take into account the differences between the expenditure needs and the revenue means of the territorial governments.”

The premiers pointed to recent failed attempts to come to an agreement on northern funding for the government’s early learning and child-care initiative as an example of “how northerners may be left out of a program because of Canada’s insistence on a per-capita approach to funding that will not meet the unique costs and circumstances we face in meeting the developmental needs of a young and vulnerable population.”

Harper recognized northern youth needs and pledged to work in a “meaningful” fashion.

As for a northern strategy, a common resource revenue-sharing agreement with Ottawa is “essential” to development of the territorial economies, said Harper.

He noted five general areas that need to be developed: sovereignty, devolution, simplified regulation, effective environmental planning that balances ecological and economic interests, and access to health services, education and economic opportunity.

Conservatives believe “northerners should control their own future and we are committed to the orderly devolution of decision making away from Ottawa to the territories,” said Harper.

“We also recognize that the three territories are at different stages of development in terms of devolution of responsibilities, completion of land claims and implementation of self-governments.”

Much of the premiers’ letter, and Harper’s reply, focus on the first ministers’ meeting in Kelowna, BC, in November 2005, where the federal government pledged $5.1 billion over five years to fight poverty in aboriginal communities across Canada (see related letter on page 10).

The Conservatives agree with the targets established to reduce aboriginal poverty “on the basis of five- to 10-year plans, as discussed at the first ministers’ meeting in Kelowna,” said Harper.

“Unfortunately, the first ministers’ meeting did not arrive at a concerted financial plan to address the five- to 10-year objectives,” he added.

“In particular, no agreements have been made concerning how the proposed federal financial commitment of $5.1 billion would be split amongst the provinces, territories and aboriginal organizations… nor how the money would be divided between aboriginal Canadians on and off reserves.

“In my opinion, these are very important details that should be examined, discussed and agreed upon by all stakeholders involved.”

The first ministers’ meeting was also incomplete because it didn’t focus enough on aboriginal families, he said.

“I was also concerned that no solutions were agreed upon at the first ministers’ meeting in relation to the structural problems that cause poverty amongst aboriginal children and women.

“As two specific examples, no solutions were discussed regarding the amendments to section 67 of the Human Rights Act, nor were the problems relating to matrimonial rights discussed.”

However, Conservative finance critic Monte Solberg recently told a Saskatchewan radio station that a Conservative government would “rip up” the Kelowna proposals and develop new ones, prompting Assembly of First Nations national chief Phile Fontaine to urge aboriginals to vote Liberal or NDP, according to media reports.

Nevertheless, Fentie was pleased with Harper’s response.

“Base-plus funding is the only course that we can take here in the North, by moving off a per-capita arrangement,” Fentie said Thursday.

“We would hold any federal government, regardless of party, to account for commitments made.

“Many of these commitments have no political boundaries in them whatsoever.”