Kelowna not an 'expensive press release', says chief
Canadian Press - Jul. 12 2007
HALIFAX -- Native leaders condemned the federal government's assertion Thursday that the defunct Kelowna accord was nothing more than an "expensive press release," saying the comments do nothing to improve already strained relations with Ottawa.
Phil Fontaine of the Assembly of First Nations said the remarks by a parliamentary secretary for the minister of Indian and Northern Affairs reflect the Conservatives disregard for a document he says could have improved the lives of natives across the country.
"It's wrong to suggest to Canadians that the Kelowna accord is just an expensive press release," Fontaine, national chief of the assembly, said on the last day of the organization's annual meeting in Halifax.
"It's simply wrong. It's irresponsible (and) too dismissive. We deserve better from the government."
Fontaine was responding to a comment by parliamentary secretary Rod Bruinooge who, when asked by reporters why the government shelved the accord, said the arrangement was a mere public relations exercise by the Liberals before the last federal election. "The previous government made an election promise at the last hour," Bruinooge said. "This was later dubbed the Kelowna accord. ... There was no agreement. It was a press release."
The comments echo those made by Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Jim Prentice who recently referred to the accord as a "very expensive press release."
A dismayed Fontaine rebuffed the claims, saying the creation of the accord involved 1,000 people, 18 months of work and the agreement of the provinces, territories and aboriginal leaders.
"Once again the government has dismissed this important arrangement," he said. "The accord represents an opportunity to finally turn the corner to make things right."
Rick Simon, an Atlantic regional chief with the assembly, said the reference could further damage aboriginal relations with Ottawa as they try to move ahead with a backlog of stalled land claims and overall improvements to living conditions on reserves.
"For him to say there's nothing there, I think it's terrible," he said as the meeting wrapped up.
The wide-ranging Kelowna accord, signed with the former Liberal government of Paul Martin in November 2005, would have seen $5 billion go toward native education, employment and anti-poverty initiatives.
The Conservatives had said they were committed to meeting the accord's goals, but did not support a private member's bill backed by the Liberals, Bloc Quebecois, and NDP that passed in March. As a result, the government wasn't obliged to support the accord financially.
The Tories say they are taking a more "targeted approach" to dealing with specific land claims, concluding the residential schools settlement agreement and extending human rights protection to natives living on reserves.
Some native leaders wondered why Prentice didn't attend the annual meeting to explain the government's position.
Bruinooge said the minister was in Belgium attending ceremonies marking the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele, where his great-uncle fought in the First World War.
Prentice's office sent a release stating he is also there to honour Cpl. Francis Pegahmagabow, Canada's most decorated aboriginal soldier who served at Passchendaele.
"We think we were snubbed by him not making the time to come here," Simon said. "It just shows where the priority is, and we're not."
Both Liberal Leader Stephane Dion and NDP Leader Jack Layton addressed the conference Thursday and decried the Tories failure to revive the Kelowna accord.
"I saw the work we did to come to this accord," Dion told hundreds of natives at the meeting. "It did not come overnight - it took a lot of work - but it seems that overnight the current government decided to get rid of this accord, and I share your disappointment."
The assembly passed more than 30 resolutions over the course of the meeting, many dealing with ways to improve conditions on reserves that have become so bad in some cases that international aid agencies have had to provide help.
Natives upset by MP's comment on accord - Disparaging the Kelowna deal amounts to a snub from Ottawa, leaders say
OLIVER MOORE - July 13, 2007
HALIFAX -- Native leaders reacted with dismay and anger yesterday upon learning a representative of Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice had dismissed the Kelowna accord as "an expensive press release."
The comment added to a sour note caused by Mr. Prentice's absence from the 28th annual meeting of the Assembly of First Nations that wrapped up in Halifax yesterday. Rick Simon, a Mi'kmaq chief from Indian Brook First Nation, said it was a "snub" that showed how important the minister considered native issues.
The government said that Mr. Prentice was in Belgium helping to honour Corporal Francis Pegahmagabow, Canada's most-decorated aboriginal soldier, at a ceremony marking the 90th anniversary of fighting at Passchendaele.
Appearing here in place of Mr. Prentice was his parliamentary secretary, Manitoba MP Rod Bruinooge.
Mr. Bruinooge was uncontroversial in his prepared remarks but, while meeting with reporters, he was asked about the Kelowna accord. It was then that he made the comment later called "irresponsible" by AFN National Chief Phil Fontaine.
In his remarks closing the meetings yesterday, Mr. Fontaine noted that it took 18 months of work before agreements aimed at improving the lives of natives were finalized in November, 2005, only days before the Liberal government of Paul Martin fell.
"We deserve better from the government," he said. "To suggest that this was just something that was crafted on the back of a napkin ... [I'm] really disappointed in Mr. Bruinooge."
Echoing a comment the day earlier by Nova Scotia Premier Rodney MacDonald, Mr. Fontaine likened native displeasure with the stillbirth of the Kelowna accord to anger on the East Coast over the Atlantic Accord.
"They've experienced the same disappointment that we've experienced," he said. "A deal is a deal ... when someone makes a deal, the deal must be honoured."
Saying that "we deserve better from the government," Mr. Fontaine spent a good part of his wide-ranging closing remarks discussing the problems facing native communities. Touching on suicide, poverty, the lack of housing and the unreliability of drinking water, he argued that such conditions would never be tolerated in non-native communities.
Speaking later to reporters who asked him about Mr. Bruinooge's characterization of the Kelowna accord, Mr. Fontaine reiterated that it was "much more" than a press release.
"It's unfortunate that it's taken this very political turn," he said.
Asked what such comments would do to the AFN's ability to work with the government, he acknowledged that the relationship has already been strained.
But he also commended the Tories for advancing several files, singling out for praise the residential schools agreement and the proposal for a tribunal to assess so-called specific claims.
Mr. Bruinooge was unruffled by the response his comment had received.
"I did refer to it as an expensive press release by the Liberal Party in their dying days," he said by telephone from Toronto later in the day. "I'm the kind of guy who calls a spade a spade."
Mr. Bruinooge said he believes that the $5-billion plan has been afforded undue status for political reasons.
"It's begun to [be seen to have] qualities of an accord, a signed agreement," he added. "It was a goal-based document ... this Kelowna press release does not have an accord behind it."