Paul Martin to Harper On First Nations: Get On With It, You Wasted 6 Years (VIDEO, PHOTOS)
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."By Heather Scoffield, The Canadian Press
FIRST NATIONS PROTESTS: FROM OKA TO CALEDONIA
Canadian soldier Patrick Cloutier and Saskatchewan Native Brad Laroque alias "Freddy Kruger" come face to face in a tense standoff at the Kahnesatake reserve in Oka, Quebec, Saturday September 1, 1990. Twenty plus years after an armed standoff at Oka laid Canada's often difficult relationship with its native peoples bare in international headlines, the bitterly contested land remains in legal limbo. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Shaney Komulainen)
A warrior raises his weapon as he stands on an overturned police vehicle blocking a highway at the Kahnesetake reserve near Oka, Quebec July 11, 1990 after a police assault to remove Mohawk barriers failed. Twenty plus years after an armed standoff at Oka laid Canada's often difficult relationship with its native peoples bare in international headlines, the bitterly contested land remains in legal limbo. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tom Hanson)
A Quebec Metis places a stick with an eagle feather tied to it into the barrel of a machine gun mounted on an army armored vehicle at Oka Thursday, Aug. 23, 1990. The vehicle was one of two positioned a few metres away from the barricade causing a breakdown in negotiations. Twenty plus years after an armed standoff at Oka laid Canada's often difficult relationship with its native peoples bare in international headlines, the bitterly contested land remains in legal limbo. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Bill Grimshaw)
A Mohawk Indian winds up to punch a soldier during a fight that took place on the Khanawake reserve on Montreal's south shore in 1990. The army broke up the fight by shooting into the air. Twenty plus years after an armed standoff at Oka laid Canada's often difficult relationship with its native peoples bare in international headlines, the bitterly contested land remains in legal limbo. (CP PHOTO)
Two aboriginal protesters man a barricade near the entrance to Ipperwash Provincial Park, near Ipperwash Beach, Ont., on Sept. 7, 1995. (CP PHOTO)
Ken Wolf, 9, walks away from a graffiti-covered smoldering car near the entrance to the Ipperwash Provincial Park in this September 7, 1995 photo. A group of aboriginal protesters were occupying the park and nearby military base. (CP PHOTO)
Caledonian activist Gary McHale (right) is confronted by a Six Nations Protester as he attempts to lead members of Canadian Advocates for Charter Equality (CANACE) in carrying a makeshift monument to Six Nations land in Caledonia, Ont., on Sunday February 27, 2011. CANACE claim inequality in treatment for Caledonian residents from Ontario Provincial Police compared to that of the Six Nation population. They planned to plant a monument of six nation property to demand an apology from the OPP, but were turned back by protesters. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
First Nations people of the Grand River Territory stand with protest signs as they force the redirection of the Vancover 2010 Olympic Torch Relay from entering The Six Nations land Monday, December 21, 2009 near Caledonia, Ontario. The Olympic torch's journey across Canada was forced to take a detour in the face of aboriginal opposition to the Games, with an Ontario First Nation rerouting its relay amid a protest from a splinter group in the community. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Dave Chidley)
Six Nations protesters guard the front entrance of a housing development in Hagersville, Ont., just south of the 15-month aboriginal occupation at Caledonia on Wednesday, May 23, 2007. The protest was peaceful. (CP PHOTO/Nathan Denette)
Mohawk protestors block a road near the railway tracks near Marysville, Ont. with a bus and a bonfire Friday April 21, 2006. The natives showed their support to fellow natives in Caledonia, Ont. where they were in a stand off with police regarding land claims.(CP PHOTO/Jonathan Hayward)
Muted Response To Harper's Speech (VIDEO)