If you open a newspaper or listen to the radio, it is easy to get discouraged about the relationship between indigenous communities and the government of Canada. Aboriginal Canadians lag far behind the Canadian average on almost every socio-economic indicator, including housing, education, unemployment, child poverty, and health and well-being. Many blame the federal, provincial and territorial governments for not doing enough to address these issues, and they criticize these governments for failing to establish good working relationships with indigenous communities. These are not new criticisms; almost all federal, provincial and territorial governments in the past have been criticized for their inability to partner with indigenous communities to create mutually beneficial public policies.

What is the solution? This year marks the 10-year anniversary of the ill-fated Kelowna Accord, a comprehensive, multiyear and multilevel initiative that was designed to forge a new, workable relationship and lasting change for Canada’s indigenous populations. Shortly after its signing, however, the accord was all but abandoned by the incoming Conservative government. Since then, we have seen social and economic conditions in many indigenous communities worsen and the relationship between Aboriginal Canadians and the Crown further deteriorate. Although the Kelowna Accord was abandoned 10 years ago, we argue that the process used by former prime minister Paul Martin to negotiate the accord may be the only way forward for improving the relationship between indigenous communities and the Crown.

The Kelowna Accord was a $5.1-billion, five-year agreement designed to bridge the life gap between Aboriginal Canadians and the rest of the population. The accord and the process used to negotiate it were meant to be broad and inclusive, and were unprecedented in scope and scale. Those involved with the accord maintained an open, honest dialogue that was driven by Aboriginal representatives rather than the federal, provincial or territorial governments. As such, it was a unique departure from the traditional relationship between the Crown and indigenous communities.

The Kelowna process began slowly, with informal discussions between Prime Minister Paul Martin and Aboriginal leaders such as Phil Fontaine. The first formal meeting was held on April 19, 2004, and included nearly 150 participants, including the Prime Minister, the entire federal cabinet, provincial officials and representatives from Canada’s national Aboriginal groups: the Assembly of First Nations, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the Métis National Council, the Native Women’s Associations of Canada and the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples. This first meeting was intended to -identify the major issues plaguing Aboriginal communities — health care, housing and education — and provide a road map for discussion in the next stage of the accord negotiations: sectoral round tables based on the priority areas identified by Aboriginal participants. These areas included health, lifelong learning, housing, economic opportunities, negotiations and accountability.

The next phase involved a bilateral policy retreat that was intended to fine-tune the policy areas discussed during the sectoral round tables and fully develop the areas of interest for the accord. The final phase of the process was the First Ministers’ Meeting on Aboriginal Issues in November 2005. The resulting agreement, entitled First Ministers and National Aboriginal Leaders: Strengthening Relationships and Closing the Gaps, aimed to launch a 10-year effort to close the gap in the quality of life between Aboriginal people and other Canadians.

Despite the fact that the accord was widely hailed as a success, the incoming Conservative government showed ambivalence about the agreement, eventually abandoning it in its first budget. The Conservatives argued that the accord “did not exist” and was merely “written on the back of a napkin.” Despite Martin’s best efforts to revive the accord through a private member’s bill, it was effectively dead, which helped to contribute to the fractured indigenous-Crown relationship that exists today.

The Kelowna experience offers a number of important and useful lessons for policy-makers interested in achieving real change.

Whatever one thinks of the wisdom of the Conservative decision to abandon the Kelowna Accord, the experience offers a number of important and useful lessons for government policy-makers interested in achieving real change, not only within indigenous communities but also in terms of improving the Crown’s relationship with indigenous peoples.

One lesson is that you cannot expect to achieve real and fundamental change at the community level if community members are mired in poverty. The Kelowna process recognized this fact by focusing in the first five years of the agreement on improving Aboriginal housing, water, health, education and infrastructure. Once conditions had reached a certain level, government and indigenous leaders planned to negotiate a second five-year agreement that would address broad, structural changes to the Aboriginal-Crown architecture.

The second and perhaps most important lesson from the Kelowna Accord was that it provided a model for how to successfully engage indigenous and nonindigenous actors in Aboriginal policy-making. In contrast to previous efforts, the Kelowna process was dynamic, open and fluid. Rather than following a top-down, government-dominated process, and recognizing that the situation facing indigenous peoples was a “wicked” problem, Prime Minister Martin realized that he needed to involve all the relevant actors in a way that played to their strengths. Drawing upon a set of relationships he had established with indigenous leaders when he was in business and as minister of finance, for instance, Martin sought out the involvement of the five major indigenous organizations, asking them to take the lead in identifying the priorities that the accord should address. He also realized that the priorities in the accord were such that the provincial, territorial and indigenous governments were best positioned to implement and spend the money allocated in the accord. Finally, he recognized that the proper role of the federal government in this situation, with its substantial fiscal capacity, was to provide the money to fulfill the ambitious goals set by participants. The result was widespread support by indigenous and nonindigenous leaders across the country.

Of course, support was not universal; some criticisms emanated from the official opposition and some from Aboriginal organizations. Nonetheless, by allowing indigenous groups to set the priorities and drive the process, the federal government achieved something that is rare in Aboriginal policy: a sense among indigenous leaders that meaningful consultation had occurred. The policy environment is different now, with significant grassroots opposition emerging toward the traditional model of the Crown negotiating with indigenous leaders. Nonetheless, the Kelowna model provides the basis for designing a new policy-making process that is driven by Aboriginal people and inclusive of a wider range of actors that felt excluded from the original process.

The final lesson from the accord is that a pan-Aboriginal approach to addressing indigenous issues should be avoided. Participants made it known very early on in the process that the breadth and diversity of Aboriginal communities across Canada, coupled with the geographic isolation of some communities, meant that a one-size-fits-all approach was not appropriate. While the issues facing the communities were relatively similar — rampant poverty, higher-than-average suicide and high school dropout rates, and poor health outcomes”ˆ— the conditions for the solutions that were needed differed considerably. Each of the five national Aboriginal groups that participated in the Kelowna discussions concluded individual agreements with the federal government. Some groups, for instance, such as the Métis Nation, were primarily concerned with increased legitimacy as constitutional actors — a recognition they received. The asymmetrical approach was the one that found agreement and success.

Ten years ago the federal government designed an innovative approach to restructuring the relationship between indigenous communities and the Crown, which resulted in the Kelowna Accord. This approach was subsequently abandoned, resulting in years of policy stagnation and, in some communities, social and economic decay. To reverse these trends, we need not reinvent the wheel. Instead, we need only look to our past for a workable, collaborative and multilevel solution. As the 10-year anniversary of the accord’s signing passes, let’s remember not only the accord’s promise but also the innovative process used to negotiate it. The time has come to recover and open the black box from the wreckage of the Kelowna Accord and implement what may be the only way forward for improving the relationship between indigenous communities and the governments of Canada.

Photo: CP Photo

Christopher Alcantara
Christopher Alcantara is a professor of political science at Western University and co-author of Winning and Keeping Power in Canadian Politics.
Zachary Spicer
Zachary Spicer is an associate professor in the school of public policy and administration at York University. He was previously director of research and outreach with the Institute of Public Administration of Canada.

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