Citing PM’s apology for residential schools, provincial leaders urge Harper to take next step by tackling native child poverty, education

Globe and Mail
July 17, 2008

QUEBEC AND OTTAWA — Canada’s premiers are calling on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to build on his historic apology to survivors of residential schools by meeting with the provinces to tackle child poverty and other social problems afflicting the country’s native communities.

In essence, the premiers suggested the reinstatement of the Kelowna Accord is the next logical step. While they have not broached the topic with the Prime Minister, they are offering to work with him in restoring many of the promises laid out in the 2005 accord.

“In the aftermath of the 11th of June apology, I think everyone now expects us to enter into a new period in which we will want to focus on new issues and take advantage of the momentum that’s created,” Quebec Premier Jean Charest said Wednesday. “This is an extended hand to the Prime Minister.”

Mr. Charest, speaking on behalf of all the premiers and territorial leaders at their annual meeting in Quebec City, said their invitation to Mr. Harper was not about confronting or embarrassing him. He and British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell went out of their way to praise the federal government for embarking on a new era in its relations with Canada’s aboriginal communities.

“I think the Prime Minister will welcome constructive suggestions on how we can close the socio-economic gap for aboriginal people across the country,” Mr. Campbell said Wednesday.

However, the Harper government expressed little interest Wednesday in revisiting the Kelowna Accord.

Kory Teneycke, a spokesman for Mr. Harper, said the government would wait to receive a formal request from the premiers before responding to the call for a first ministers meeting on aboriginal issues.

“I think our position on the Kelowna Accord has been clear and consistent and is unlikely to change,” he said.

The accord was signed by then-prime-minister Paul Martin, the premiers and native leaders in Kelowna, B.C., just before the federal election campaign in which the Liberals were defeated by the Conservatives in January, 2006. The culmination of more than a year and a half of negotiations, the accord pledged to bring aboriginal living conditions up to the national average within 10 years. More than $5-billion in federal spending was promised over five years for housing, education, governance and health.

The Harper government said it supported the Kelowna goals, but could not commit to the new spending because it was not properly studied in detail. Conservatives derisively dismiss the accord as a “press release.”

Mr. Charest said yesterday that Ottawa cannot ignore the accord any longer. He also suggested that it was not the place of the Harper government to cancel it.

“The Kelowna Accord is not the propriety of any given individual or government,” he said. “It’s something that we together worked to put forward.”

The premiers are seeking to bring Ottawa to the table to reintroduce certain elements of the Kelowna Accord without tackling all the issues in the agreement. According to a source, discussions with Mr. Harper would focus exclusively on education and child poverty as a means to persuade the federal government to come to the table.

However, for Assembly of First Nations leader Phil Fontaine, the objective would be nothing less than full implementation of the accord some time soon, noting that it was adopted by this minority Parliament as part of a private member’s bill introduced by Mr. Martin.

“The Kelowna Accord is now Canadian law. What is missing is the financial commitment to implement the Kelowna Accord. When we talk next steps, that is the most important step we can take.”