Last November, on the eve of the federal election call, then-prime minister Paul Martin met with the premiers and native leaders in Kelowna, B.C. He announced a five-year, $5.1-billion “plan of action” to close the gaps between housing, education and health standards among Indians, Metis and Inuit, and the Canadian population as a whole.
The so-called Kelowna accord was never truly an action plan. It was more like a blank cheque — yet another blank cheque to be thrown at aboriginals in the vain hope the chronic problems they suffer would go away with money alone.
There was to be $1.8-billion to close the gap — Martin used the word “gap” 15 times in his final news conference — between native and non-native drop-out rates and between the two groups’ university completion rates.
There was to be another $1.3- billion for a new “native health care blueprint” and $1.6-billion for housing on reserves, plus assorted hundreds of millions for economic development and land claims and other grab-bag goodies. There was even to be $90-million for aboriginal organizations to “study” and “propose public policy.”
In a phrase that probably captured the futility of his entire term in office better than any other, Mr. Martin explained that just making these monetary pledges would improve natives’ lives. “Targets mean progress,” he proclaimed.
It was ever thus with him. He always seemed to believe that just announcing a problem was going to be tackled was the same as actually coming up with practical solutions.
Merely appointing a cabinet minister to be in charge of ending the democratic deficiency in Parliament was as good as actually changing the rules to make Parliament more democratic. Or reaffirming Canada’s commitment to Kyoto was the same thing as devising a real-world plan to reduce emissions.
Or promising to increase Canada’s influence in international affairs was a good as actually increasing our military and diplomatic resources. Canada merely needed to say it wanted to re-engage on the world stage and the rest of the countries would genuflect and clear a path.
So it should not surprise that one of the key features of the Kelowna agreement was that it contained almost no “plan” whatsoever.
Just spend a billion more a year on natives and — Mr. Martin actually promised this — within a decade they would have the same standard of living as their non-native countrymen.
At the time, Ottawa was already spending $8-billion a year on aboriginals, but no one could explain how with just $1-billion more all the very real problems among natives would disappear.
Without some very real changes to how natives govern themselves and how they account for the monies they receive from taxpayers, whether First Nations governments are given $1-billion more a year or $10-billion more there will be little or no improvement.
So when the premiers who had been party to the Kelowna accord gathered again in Corner Brook, Nfld., this week, in advance of the annual premiers’ summit, and reaffirmed their commitment to the agreement, they were really just restating their belief in a meaningless, details-free waste of tax dollars.
It is easy for the premiers to push Prime Minister Stephen Harper to live up to Kelowna. The accord places very few demands on them to do anything. In particular, it commits them to very little spending.
In other words, it permits them to portray themselves to their voters as caring and concerned individuals, deeply sensitive to the plight of natives, without actually having to do anything tangible.
But first the Liberals and now the Conservatives have bowed to political correctness and axed new laws that might have ensured some of the billions given to native bands each year actually went to eliminating “gaps.”
The Liberals killed the First Nations Governance Act, which would have made on-reserve government more professional, transparent and accountable to native voters and in June, the Conservatives ripped from their new Federal Accountability Act a clause that would have let the Auditor-General audit First Nations governments.
The premiers can posture all they want about the need to honour the Kelowna accord, but unless and until Ottawa makes native leaders more accountable, $8-billion, $9-billion, $20-billion a year won’t solve native problems.