OTTAWA – Paul Martin does nothing to mask his frustration on the other end of a telephone line.
The former prime minister and architect of the scuttled Kelowna Accord tried to find something to salvage in the historic talks between First Nations chiefs and Stephen Harper. Instead, what he saw was the federal government wasting more time and sending the chiefs home empty handed.
“The government has nothing concrete to say,” Martin told The Canadian Press. “They wasted six years.”
The joint statement between Harper and the chiefs released Tuesday committed to a task force on economic development and a working group on the structure of government financing of First Nations.
It also committed to reviewing a report on education, as well as processes to improve governance and the implementation of treaties.
But all that work has already been done many times over, Martin said.
“All of this preliminary work that they’re now talking about doing has been done. It’s there. It’s on the record.”
Martin, who is now 73, and aboriginal leaders negotiated a pact in 2005 that would have pumped $5-billion over five years into native health care, education, housing and clean water. The Kelowna Accord was shelved by Stephen Harper soon after his Conservative government defeated the Martin-led Liberals six years ago this week.
With no clear time lines or goals included for the processes they’ve set up, Martin says his successor is proving the Conservative government “has no sense of urgency.”
At the very least, the government should have committed to ending discrimination in education funding for First Nations children, he added.
“How difficult is it for a government to say ‘we’re going to end discrimination’,” Martin said.
The Prime Minister’s Office was asked for reaction to Martin’s remarks and declined to offer any comment.
First Nations have long complained that money spent on education per student is several thousand dollars less for on-reserve children than for children just a kilometre away off-reserve.
In court, the federal government has argued that it’s not fair to compare provincial funding of off-reserve schools to federal funding of on-reserve schools.
Equal funding would likely cost the government billions. But money is no excuse for discrimination, Martin said.
“Are they going to eliminate the deficit on the backs of six-year-olds who can’t read?” he said. “There is no doubt that you’re not going to get economic development unless you have an education.”
The federal government has a moral obligation to make sure each child is funded equally, he added.
“There is no moral argument stronger than condemning an act of discrimination against the most vulnerable in your society,” he said.
Martin remains involved in First Nations affairs, heading up a foundation that invests in aboriginal education and entrepreneurship. He is flabbergasted by the emphasis Harper is putting on “building a relationship” with First Nations, saying the Conservatives have had six years to do that and “it’s unbelievable” that they seem to be starting from the beginning only now.
“If you need to establish a relationship, go to a reserve and read to a six-year-old,” Martin said. “Set up a literacy program.”
Harper has made a point of doing things differently than Martin. Upon taking office six years ago, the Conservatives let the Kelowna Accord sink unfunded, and dismissed it as flimsy — despite 18 months of negotiations with First Nations, Inuit, Metis and the provinces.
Harper has also stressed that he prefers an incremental approach that takes small, practical steps rather than the comprehensive approach favoured by his predecessor.
But Martin says the Kelowna Accord was not his idea. Rather, it was the collective idea of aboriginal groups who set their own agenda and brought it to him.
“The reason it’s the best approach is because the government didn’t dictate it.”
Martin says Harper, by contrast, is imposing his own will and ways upon First Nations — an approach the former prime minister insists won’t produce results.
Still, Martin has nothing but praise for the Assembly of First Nations for entering into talks with the Harper government while pushing for fundamental changes.
They can’t give up now, though, Martin added.
“Their next step is to hold the government accountable.”
Harper needs to demonstrate his commitment in the upcoming budget, Martin said.
Sources suggest the budget may contain something for First Nations education, perhaps a pilot project. But as yet, there is no plan in place for how the government wants to handle education reform and the budget is fast approaching.
First Nations leaders are also desperate for more funding for housing, health care and child welfare services. The recent housing crisis in Attawapiskat, Ont., and on the Ontario side of James Bay, are examples of raging poverty and substandard housing conditions undercutting reserves in many areas, they say.
Some chiefs have threatened retaliation if Harper allows those conditions to persist.
But Martin believes First Nations communities won’t let the summit’s lack of concrete action get them down.
“I believe that in the First Nations right across the country, there is an enormous amount of hope, a huge amount of hope for their children,” he said. “What they’re looking for is for Canada and Canadians to respond to that. The Canadian people have to get behind them.”