Despite the wishes of prominent Canadian aboriginal leaders, the Kelowna accord was not on the agenda at a meeting of Canada’s premiers in Newfoundland on Tuesday.
Rather, premiers and aboriginal leaders renewed their commitment to the spirit of the historic agreement, says Yukon Premier Dennis Fentie.
The agreement between Canada’s premiers and Ottawa aimed at eliminating the poverty gap that exists between aboriginal Canadians and the rest of mainstream society hit the skids in February 2006, after the former Liberal government lost power to the Conservative Party in a federal election.
But the new Conservative government pledged to uphold the principles of the agreement.
So far, the Conservatives have been making good on that commitment, said Fentie.
They just don’t use the old name.
“This was not about an accord in Kelowna,” Fentie said in a teleconference Tuesday from Corner Brook, Newfoundland.
“Our discussion today was not centred around a $5-billion accord.
“It was reaffirming, as premiers and national aboriginal leaders, our commitment to deal with the gaps that have been clearly recognized back in November, that we all know existed long before November.”
The Kelowna accord, hatched in November 2005, pledged $5.1 billion over five years to assist aboriginal communities with housing, education and health care.
But the agreement did not include a funding framework.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government took flak across the country for not upholding the agreement, which was years in the making but delivered in the 11th hour, before the minority Liberal government fell.
However, the Conservatives’ first federal budget, released in May, included $450 million for “Kelowna-type programs,” the Canadian Press reported Tuesday.
Another $600 million for one-time housing and territorial funding was earmarked in the budget, contingent on at least a $2-billion surplus remaining after federal numbers are finalized in coming months, said Canadian Press.
Fifty million dollars, over three years, were promised for affordable housing for aboriginals in the Yukon alone, Fentie said in April.
The premiers’ meeting with aboriginal leaders on Tuesday “was not about something centred around what you call a Kelowna accord,” he said.
“It’s far beyond that.
“A good step has been taken in this recent federal budget.
“The North has been the recipient of significant funds to deal with housing.
“We all recognize there’s much more that must be done. The issue for us is remaining committed and dedicated to these issues for aboriginal Canadians.”
First Nations leaders present at the meeting are part of a “consensus” that progress has been made but there’s more to do, he added.
However, aboriginal leaders still want the Kelowna agreement honoured.
“We want to, I guess, ensure that the premiers are still onside with us in terms of pressing the Harper government to honour the Kelowna agreement,” Clement Chartier, president of the Metis National Council, told CBC Radio One in Newfoundland.
Upon re-election earlier in July, Assembly of First Nations Grand Chief Phil Fontaine vowed to fight for Kelowna’s revival.
“The Kelowna accord was a well-developed plan that was going to cost the government $5 billion,” Fontaine told Canadian Press.
“Our proposition makes more economic sense than to continue maintaining poverty,” he said, estimating that aboriginal poverty will cost the federal government $12 billion by 2012.
The aboriginal leaders who met with the premiers for a “brief” discussion on Tuesday were pleased with the premiers’ approach of engaging the ministers of their various jurisdictions who are responsible for aboriginal affairs, said Fentie.
“We have now agreed to convene, as quickly as possible, a meeting of those ministers in provinces and territories responsible for aboriginal affairs along with aboriginal leaders across the country,” he said.
“We feel that’s an important approach and a constructive approach to take because far too much time elapses between the premiers meeting with aboriginal leaders.”
In the Yukon, Fentie handles the First Nations file.
A meeting of such ministers or premiers and aboriginal leaders is tentatively slated for January 2007 in Saskatchewan, Fentie added.
A subsequent meeting in British Columbia to discuss domestic violence afflicting aboriginal women was also discussed, he said.
The premiers’ meeting will conclude later this week in St. John’s, Newfoundland, where they will discuss the so-called “fiscal imbalance” that exists between Canada’s provinces and territories.