The Kelowna Accord

By Jeremy Woo

In the midst of the tumultuous, First Nations-based Idle No More movement, a familiar face in Canadian politics showed up in support of Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence’s daring hunger strike. Unfortunately, due to the precarious state of his short-lived minority government, former prime minister Paul Martin is not remembered for his groundbreaking involvement in aboriginal affairs. 

Martin’s carefully brokered Kelowna Accord sought to right the many wrongs in the relationship between government and Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples, but survived for a mere 72 hours in 2005 before the fall of Martin’s minority government. The succeeding Conservative government scrapped the policy in its entirety. 

Though it does not perfectly answer the demands of the Idle No More movement, the Canadian government must reconsider Martin’s pioneering Kelowna Accord, as it is the best, most comprehensive solution to the injustices and inequalities experienced by Canada’s embattled aboriginal population. 

Policy aside, the way in which the agreement was negotiated was fair, balanced and equitable. All of Canada’s First Ministers met with aboriginal leaders in Kelowna, including then National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Phil Fontaine. All parties at the table came to an agreement. This was preceded by 18 months of roundtable discussions and dialogue between the government and First Nations. Fontaine described the Kelowna Accord as a breakthrough, and he believed that First Nations were “driving this process and forcing government to respond to our plan,” revealing his satisfaction with the negotiations and end result. Fontaine continued to advocate for the Kelowna Accord’s implementation. 

Then Inuit leader Jose Kusugak commented on the talks, saying that “[t]hese meetings are the best and most productive way for setting and measuring the goal.[It] produces results and we should keep it.” This co-operative and inclusive process is a vast contrast to the situation faced by Canadian aboriginals today. Though current National Chief Shawn Atleo has been proactive in speaking with the prime minister, there is clear dissatisfaction with the Harper government — now notably through the Idle No More campaign, stemming from a serious lack of dialogue between First Nations and the government. Clearly, the Kelowna Accord was negotiated in a way that seemed to be satisfactory to all parties and therefore should be re-evaluated. 

Most importantly, the Kelowna Accord was brilliantly designed to resolve the same aboriginal issues that have boiled over into a full-scale movement. This not only included significant federal funding — $5 billion over five years — but very specific, measurable targets. For example, the agreement promised $400 million to solve the basic need for clean water on remote reserves as part of a $1.6 billion housing plan that would make aboriginal communities livable, less crowded and viable. $1.8 billion was to be earmarked for education, intended to build more schools, train aboriginal teachers and match the aboriginal high school graduation rate with the rest of the Canadian population. Furthermore, goals were set to reduce infant mortality, youth suicide, child obesity and diabetes rates by 20 per cent in five years utilizing $1.3 billion in health service funds. Notably, these targets were agreed upon by government and First Nations; Fontaine was particularly content with the results. Sadly, the Conservatives sliced aboriginal spending by more than half after forming government. A new conversation on achieving aboriginal targets was to occur — one that never happened, leaving many First Nations disgruntled about the persisting Third World-like problems.

The distinguished Martin, who offered his valuable endorsement to Idle No More, is dubiously famed for his relentless budget slashing as Minister of Finance, embarrassingly short tenure as prime minister and role in the alleged Sponsorship Scandal that led to the subsequent decline of the Liberal Party of Canada. However, Martin should also be remembered as a skillful and ingenious architect of commendable social and aboriginal policy. The Kelowna Accord was a mutual agreement where all parties successfully co-operated to significantly improve everyday life for some of Canada’s most vulnerable people. If Prime Minister Stephen Harper truly wants an equitable, viable and effective solution to First Nations’ issues, he must realize that it already exists in the Kelowna Accord, thanks to his ill-fated predecessor.