Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Paul Martin speaks out on / for aboriginals

Paul Martin accuses Conservatives of ignoring impoverished aboriginals
Former PM urges $5 billion Kelowna deal, but Tories say they won't reinstate it
Mar 21, 2007 Bruce Campion-Smith ottawa bureau thetorontosun

The federal Conservatives have a moral duty to help Canada's impoverished aboriginals, not because it wins votes but because it's the "right thing to do," former prime minister Paul Martin says.

MPs vote tonight on whether to resurrect Martin's Kelowna Accord, a $5 billion deal meant to bring long-lasting improvements to the lives of aboriginal people that was scrapped by the new government.

If successful tonight, Martin's private member's bill would proceed to the Senate where he hopes it would also be passed. And he says that would create a "dilemma" for the Tories about whether to put it into force.

However, Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice said yesterday it would have no impact on the government's direction.

"It's a statement that the opposition parties may wish to make. I intend to move on and deal with the issues ... in terms of systemic reforms for on-reserve citizens in this country and we're making progress," he said.

Martin has won an important ally in his push to see the accord become reality. Former prime minister Brian Mulroney spoke in favour of the deal during an appearance on the CBC television show The Next Great Prime Minister.

"We've existed for 140 years and we have this shameful situation that (exists) today, and why? Very simple. We stole their land. We drove the Indians, the Inuit, the natives off their land," Mulroney said on the show, broadcast Sunday night.

"I support it. Absolutely," Mulroney said of the Liberal accord.

In an interview yesterday, Martin called Mulroney's comments "helpful" as he looks to tonight's vote, when his bill is expected to pass with the support of the opposition parties.

The accord was reached in November, 2005 when the federal government, the provinces and territories and five native groups met in Kelowna, B.C., and agreed to a package of investment in education, housing and economic opportunities for aboriginal people.

The deal capped 18 months of negotiations.

"Nobody did that because there were votes involved. Nobody thinks this is a huge vote-getting issue. We did it because it was the right thing to do and it was a unique coming together," said Martin (LaSalle-Émard).

The accord was overturned by the minority Conservative government elected two months later. Martin has dedicated his last term in Parliament to trying to implement the deal.

"What is simply mind-boggling in (Monday's) budget is that the Conservatives turned their back on Kelowna," Martin said in an interview in his Parliament Hill office.

"Think what that means. You've got the youngest, fastest-growing population in Canada, which means that their education needs are growing ... their health-care needs are growing and there wasn't a penny to meet those needs," he said.

"This is a fundamental moral issue. You don't turn your back on a segment of your population," he said.

Martin and aboriginal groups had hoped Monday's budget would include the Tories' own version of the Kelowna agreement to deal with education, health care and housing needs.

"Well, that has now gone out the window. It is clear that they have no alternative to Kelowna, which is why I think this bill is so important," he said.

Prentice defended his government's handling of aboriginal issues, saying his department's spending will top $10 billion over the coming year.