[Then-national chief Phil Fontaine speaks during the opening ceremonies of the AFN annual meeting on July 15, 2008 in Quebec City. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot]
Phil Fontaine is proud of the progress that has been made for aboriginal Canadians, including his work in securing a 2006 class-action victory for residential school survivors and an official apology two years later to survivors from then-prime minister Stephen Harper.
But true reconciliation between the country and its indigenous Canadians requires more work, the former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations said at McGill University a week ago, including the revival of the Kelowna Accord.
The now-defunct 2005 accord was a $5-billion agreement between Canada’s five national aboriginal leaders, then-prime minister Paul Martin, and the provinces and territories. The wide-ranging accord would have covered improvements in housing, schooling, infrastructure and related projects aimed at raising the quality of life of aboriginal people living on reserves.
However, it was scrapped in 2006 when the Conservative government came into power. The Harper government replaced the Kelowna Accord with a less expensive two-year plan focused largely on improving water supply and quality on reserves.
At the time, Martin said that scrapping the accord would be “immoral.”
Today, inequalities persist for Canadian aboriginals living both on and off reserves. A 2013 report from the Canadian Human Rights Commission found that, when compared to non-aboriginals, aboriginal Canadians have lower median after-tax incomes, are more likely to collect social assistance and employment insurance, are more likely to experience abuse, are more likely to be victims of violent crimes, are more likely to be incarcerated and are less likely to be granted parole.
Recent studies have shown that these inequalities are tied to the actions of governments in Canada. Last year a United Nations report said that Canada had violated the rights of aboriginal women in its failure to investigate the higher rates of violence they experience. And in 2014, a report from the Centre for International Governance Innovation said that Canada needed a national task force on indigenous rights.
Addressing these inequalities in meaningful and impactful ways is key to taking reconciliation beyond statements and apologies, Fontaine said at McGill.
“We can talk nice words about reconciliation… but if we don’t do something about First Nations poverty, we will truly fail in our efforts to bring about reconciliation.”
The government is committed to ensuring that both the accord and the spirit of reconciliation that drives it are embraced in a way that makes sense for today’s challenges, Indigenous and Northern Affairs spokeswoman Valerie Hache tells Yahoo Canada News in an emailed statement.
“We will give meaningful effect to the guiding principles of the Kelowna Accord and bolster efforts towards reconciliation informed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action,” Hache says. “Making progress on the Kelowna objectives will require a renewed nation-to-nation process with Indigenous Peoples on issues of importance to First Nations, Métis and Inuit — issues such as health, education, economic development, housing, child and family services and access to safe drinking water.”
Fontaine was contacted for this story.