Globe and Mail

OTTAWA and QUEBEC — Prime Minister Stephen Harper will hold a first ministers meeting this fall with the provinces and territories and has agreed to place aboriginal issues on the agenda.

The news follows this week’s demand from provincial and territorial premiers for a meeting with the Prime Minister to discuss the poor social conditions faced by Canada’s young aboriginals, especially in education.

“We are looking at sitting down with the premiers this fall. There’ll be a number of items on the agenda at that time and aboriginal issues are likely to be one of those,” Kory Teneycke, Mr. Harper’s director of communications, told The Globe and Mail yesterday.

Mr. Teneycke’s comments also followed two days of questions from The Globe about a written pledge Mr. Harper made during the 2006 election campaign to hold a meeting with first ministers and national aboriginal leaders within three years of a Conservative government to update progress on the 2005 Kelowna Accord.

When asked whether Mr. Harper will consider this fall’s meeting as having met that commitment, the Prime Minister’s spokesman said: “That will be for others to determine.”

Mr. Teneycke noted Mr. Harper usually meets with the premiers as a group once a year, in addition to one-on-one meetings. Details about the fall first-ministers meeting, which will be Mr. Harper’s third, will be outlined as plans take shape, he said. Other topics on the agenda would likely include the economy and climate change.

Speaking on behalf of all the provinces this week, Quebec Premier Jean Charest urged Mr. Harper to build on his June 11 residential schools apology by tackling aboriginal education and social conditions.

Mr. Harper faced criticism from native leaders and opposition parties for dismissing the 2005 Kelowna Accord, in which then-prime-minister Paul Martin pledged $5-billion over five years to work with provinces to bring aboriginal living standards up to the national average within 10 years.

Phil Fontaine, the Assembly of First Nations leader who played a key role in negotiating the accord, lobbied premiers by phone in recent weeks, urging them to call for a first ministers meeting.

The AFN ensured that premiers were made aware of the campaign pledge that Mr. Harper made in a letter to Mr. Fontaine.

“The Conservative Party of Canada is also committed to holding another meeting with First Ministers and National Aboriginal Leaders within the next two or three years to measure the progress made on the Kelowna commitments,” Mr. Harper pledged in the Jan. 6, 2006, letter.

Minority Parliaments are usually short-lived, but the Harper government’s three-year anniversary is just six months away.

The pledge is at odds with what would come to be the Harper government’s public stand on the Kelowna Accord, which has been to dismiss the deal as poorly thought out.

Mr. Fontaine said Mr. Harper’s written pledge was clear and national aboriginal leaders should be invited to this fall’s meeting.

“I see it as good news,” Mr. Fontaine said yesterday. “But that first ministers meeting must include us.…We’re talking about Canada’s biggest challenge, first nations poverty, the single most important social justice issue in this country.”

Prior to this week’s premiers meeting in Quebec City, sources say Mr. Charest discussed Mr. Fontaine’s push for a first ministers meeting with Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty.

The two premiers came to the view, later supported by the other premiers, that it would be better to ask for a narrowly defined meeting with the Prime Minister on native education and social conditions. It was decided that a more specific request would reduce the odds that the Prime Minister would reject the meeting.

Patrick Brazeau, the national chief of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples who has been skeptical of the Kelowna Accord, said the premiers were not as unanimous as it appeared when it came to their willingness to pay more for aboriginal education. He said Ottawa and the provinces must still work out the thorny issue of who is responsible for the conditions of aboriginals living off reserves.

“It’s time to move on and actually provide results for aboriginal peoples as opposed to continuing talking about the problems,” he said.