Before the Canadian election last January 23rd, I posted a piece about Assembly of First Nations’ Chief, Phil Fontaine, and his worries about a potential Conservative victory. His concern was the survival of two key deals that had been worked out with Paul Martin’s Liberal government.
One deal was a finalization of compensation for those natives who had suffered abuse and damages during their internment in the residential school system in Canada, and the other was the negotiation of an agreement with all ten premiers and the federal government for investment in education, housing, and infrastructure on reserves. The object of the second program was to finally be able to break the cycle of endless poverty and abuse that has become prevalent on so many reserves.
Supplying each reserve with educational facilities, proper sewage, and housing would cost a lot of money and require careful monitoring, both of how the money is being spent and to ensure that standards are maintained after the fact. There’s no point in building houses, water purification systems, and schools if there’s no way of ensuring that ten years from now the houses haven’t collapsed, no one knows how to maintain the sewage plants, and students aren’t getting an education equal to that of the rest of Canada.
Phil Fontaine is a patient man, he has played a wise and intelligent game with the governments of Canada during his term so far, playing out enough rope of conciliation to either build a bridge, or allow the government to hang themselves again. He’s managed to keep a lid on the anger and impatience of many Native groups in Canada by being able to promise they would finally get more than just the dribs and drabs of recent memory, and to be able to actually do something constructive for their people.
The agreements reached in November of 2005 went a long way towards justifying his methods. All the provinces of Canada agreed to the accord, and the funding was promised to ensure the present well being, and a brighter future, for his people.
While the agreement on compensation for the victims of the residential school system wasn’t nearly as big, financially, as the other, it contained some key elements long sought after. The government agreed to follow the pattern established by the Australians a few years back and set up a reconciliation committee that would serve to inform the Canadian public of the true nature of the residential school system and work at ways to reconcile the two peoples.
During the campaign leading up to the last election, the Conservative Party of Canada would not commit to the treaties in question. Phil Fontaine tried to force the issue by warning them that natives could swing up to sixty-four ridings in Canada. If natives could be convinced to vote as a block, they would represent a serious impediment to Conservative ambitions of forming a majority government.
Mr. Fontaine’s concern about the Conservatives was two-fold: they are noted for being social conservatives, period, and not liking anything that smacks of handing out money; and in their previous incarnations as either the Alliance and the Reform parties, normal party policy ran the lines of, “We won, they lost, live with it.” Not something to generate hope amongst the minds of his constituents. The Conservatives stayed mute about their plans during the election; the most they would say were the usual words about examining the matter closely once they formed the government.
So now, Phil Fontaine and his people have to wait and see how long the grass will be green and the water will run on these treaties. Will they be like so many others where the grass has been replaced by pavement, and the water damned and diverted to flood their hunting grounds? Or will the Conservatives follow through on what is now an initial expense, but that in the long run could lead to self-sufficiency and a reduction of native dependence on governments for survival?
In his March 7th column in the Globe and Mail John Ibbitson stresses the importance of what’s become known as the Kelowna Accord:
In Kelowna, everyone finally declared enough is enough. All sides resolved to spend their energies on improving the aboriginal quality of life, on breaking the cycles, on finally going to work on closing the gaps…If Kelowna is lost, then that opportunity is lost, an act of faith is betrayed, and there is nothing to look forward to except a return to the bad old ways…Because Kelowna is the last, best hope to improve the lives of natives in this generation.
So far, Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice has publicly endorsed the treaty but has also raised misgivings about whether or not the framework to ensure proper delivery of the funds is in place. While it appears that most Native leaders (the government of Canada still insists on using the archaic term Indian for some reason; maybe they don’t want to pay to change the stationary) will be patient enough to let the new government figure out how to implement the treaty, they’re not going to be too happy with anything that looks like deliberate attempts at stalling.
So far, no one in the government is making any commitment to the original amount of 5.1 billion dollars over ten years that was proposed in the agreement. But seeing how this is a fiscally conservative as well as socially conservative government, there is a lot of holding of breath on the Native side of things.
For now they’re going to have to wait a little while longer until the House of Commons reopens in April. Their first clue will come with the Speech From The Throne (the symbolic reading of the government’s intentions for the upcoming session by the Queen’s representative in Canada, the Governor General) and what, if anything, it mentions about the treaty. Then it will be up to the Finance Minister to announce that the funding requirements will be met when he reads his budget shortly after.
If neither of those circumstances comes about, or if the funding is inadequate compared to needs, it will just be another broken treaty that the Native people have signed. But if the Conservative government can honour the Kelowna accord, it could mark the time we finally turn the corner after years of neglect, and Native people can begin the ascent into a world with a future for the first time in hundreds of years. I’d say that’s worth a few billion dollars.