Monday, March 5, 2007

can dion work through the Kelowna Accord?

Natives look beyond Kelowna
Mar 05, 2007 Carol Goar TheTorontoStar

There is an easy assumption in Liberal circles that all a future Stéphane Dion government would have to do to bring hope and healing to Canada's aboriginal peoples would be to reinstate the Kelowna Accord.

The $5 billion agreement to tackle aboriginal poverty was former prime minister Paul Martin's proudest achievement. It was endorsed by all of the premiers and the leaders of the five main aboriginal organizations.

The signatories never explained how they would reach the ambitious goals they set and Martin never explained how his government would pay for its five-year commitment. But the accord was hailed as a historic breakthrough.

Fifteen months later, many aboriginal people see it as yet another empty political deal, the latest in a long string of disappointments. That alone should give Dion pause.

But there is a more fundamental problem. For a growing segment of the aboriginal population, the Kelowna Accord reflects an outdated reality.

Mark Podlasly, a dynamic young native leader with a Harvard degree and a global business, speaks for that group. He headed the Liberal Renewal Commission's aboriginal task force.

His generation, Podlasly says, wants to break out of the stultifying hierarchy of governments and native organizations enshrined in Martin's plan. Despite the loss of social benefits and the high risk of poverty, aboriginal young people are heading for urban centres. They'd rather take their chances than wait for Ottawa and their own leaders to deliver on their promises.

Podlasly, who belongs to the N'laka'pmx First Nation in British Columbia, and his team of indigenous writers have drafted a thought-provoking report urging the Liberal party to circumvent, rather than buttress, the structures that are holding aboriginal people back.

"Fixing the system seems to lie outside the imagination of the current bureaucratic regime," the report says. "Organizations such as the Assembly of First Nations and the Congress of Aboriginal People have been equally unable to address the transformation underway in aboriginal Canada.

"The future of aboriginality is decidedly urban. The flow of people, ideas, goods, education, professional talent and, increasingly, capital between cities and reserves provides an opportunity for the federal government to leverage the talents and energy of aboriginal people to contribute to the overall social and community development of native people across Canada."

The 32-page paper offers a preliminary glimpse – not a detailed road map – of this new path. Nonetheless, it contains some intriguing pointers:

* A Liberal government should send out independent research teams comprised of aboriginal and non-aboriginal people, to find out what is really going on in aboriginal communities. The Department of Indian and Northern Affairs has no idea. It merely hands out money to First Nations and Inuit organizations to deliver programs and services. Its employees get most of their information from the media and band councils with a vested interest in maintaining the current regime. This is not a sound basis for policy-making.

* The Liberals should take advantage of the strong links that exist between aboriginal people who work in cities and those who have stayed on the reserve. It is these informal networks, not the old top-down structures, which offer the greatest potential to alleviate poverty and create a positive, forward-looking sense of aboriginal community. "Unfortunately, federal policy virtually ignores this emerging reality."

* The Liberals should loosen restrictive post-secondary funding rules and ensure that money meant for education is used that way. Under current arrangements, aboriginal students over the age of 34 are ineligible for financial help, those choosing technical trade programs get little assistance and bands have the discretion to use transfer payments from the Department of Indian Affairs as they wish. This sidelines too many people who want to acquire skills and support their families.

* The Liberals should launch a micro-lending program for aboriginal people who lack the collateral to borrow from financial institutions. Although Ottawa does guarantee loans of up to $75,000 to aboriginal entrepreneurs, its business development strategy is of little use to low-income band members who need $1,000 to open a store or set up an artists' co-op. This kind of micro-credit has created jobs and sustainable development in many parts of the world.

In fairness to Dion, he has said he wants to do more than reinstate the Kelowna Accord. But his agenda, like Martin's, consists chiefly of targets: by 2010, environmental standards in aboriginal communities will meet or exceed the Canadian average; by 2016, the proportion of aboriginal students who complete high school will match the Canadian average; by 2020, the proportion of aboriginal young people with post-secondary training will match the Canadian average.

These are fine benchmarks, Podlasly says. But Dion won't reach them with faulty intelligence and broken tools.