Standing in the midmorning breeze with a Canadian flag draped over her shoulders, Sylvia Isaac worried about the prospect of the Conservatives winning this federal election.
“This country is going to the dogs,” the Carrier Sekani woman and board member of the Pacific Association of First Nations Women told the Georgia Straight at Vancouver’s Grandview Park on October 4.
Isaac joined antipoverty and housing activists in a gathering at the park to call attention to the plight of homeless aboriginal people, who were overrepresented in the 2008 homelessness count in the Lower Mainland.
Later that day, other advocates stood at the corner of Main Street and 36th Avenue to ask federal politicians to make housing for all a central issue in this election.
“They don’t even care about people who are middle class,” Isaac said of Conservative Leader Stephen Harper and the Conservative party. “They just care about high-income people, and people of low income are forgotten.”
On September 29, the Ottawa-based staff of the Make Poverty History campaign launched YouTube videos of leaders of the Liberal party, NDP, Bloc Québécois, and Green party answering a set of questions on how they intend to tackle poverty (www.makepovertyhistory.ca/ontherecord).
According to Dennis Howlett, Canadian coordinator for the global antipoverty campaign, Harper didn’t make himself available.
Two of the five questions asked of the federal leaders dealt with their plans for aboriginal people and, specifically, what they intend to do with the Kelowna Accord. The landmark agreement among federal, provincial, and Native leaders committed $5.1 billion over five years for various aboriginal programs.
“It was an important step forward to addressing aboriginal poverty,” Howlett told the Straight of the Kelowna Accord. “It was a real shame”¦to have it just cancelled when the Conservatives got in.”
All four opposition leaders promised on YouTube to go ahead with the deal that outlined a 10-year plan to bridge the standard-of-living gap between Native and non-Native Canadians by 2016.
The Kelowna Accord provided for $1.6 billion in housing-related initiatives. The agreement was concluded on November 25, 2005, after 18 months of negotiations. A few days later, the Liberal government of then–prime minister Paul Martin fell. After forming a minority government in February 2006, the Conservatives ignored the accord.
When the issue of the Kelowna Accord came up in the House of Commons on April 11, 2008, Hansard records that Conservative Cariboo–Prince George MP Richard Harris dismissed the agreement as a “bogus $5-billion press release”.
Hansard transcripts from May 28 this year also show that Chuck Strahl, the minister of Indian affairs and Conservative Chilliwack–Fraser Canyon MP, likewise disparaged the Kelowna Accord, calling it a “press release” with “nothing in there that said how we were going to change the system to make it work”.
On June 18, the Kelowna Accord Implementation Act—a private member’s bill introduced by Martin that was supported by the Liberals, the NDP, and the Bloc—received royal assent.
The next day, Liberal Vancouver Quadra MP Joyce Murray stood in the House of Commons to demand the implementation of this law.
“It’s not unusual for citizen groups to take the government to court when they feel that the laws are not being properly applied,” Murray told the Straight about what may happen should another Conservative government choose to ignore the Kelowna Accord. “That’s happened in cases with respect to the environment and species at risk. The government has been sued for ignoring its law.”
Patrick Stewart chairs the Aboriginal Homelessness Steering Committee, which has been working since 2000 to address Native housing concerns in Metro Vancouver. He said dealing with the federal government on this issue hasn’t been easy.
“We used to have to fight with the Liberals, but at least they were willing to sit down and talk about it,” Stewart told the Straight. “With Conservatives, it’s very difficult even to meet with them. They just closed the doors when they got into power. We noticed the difference right away because ministers all of a sudden couldn’t come to a meeting, couldn’t say things, you know.”
The state of Native housing
> About one in six First Nations homes are overcrowded.
> Overcrowding in First Nations homes is almost double the Canadian rate.
> About one in three First Nations people consider their water supply unsafe for drinking.
> Almost one in 30 First Nations people live in homes without hot running water.
> Almost half of First Nations homes are contaminated by mould.
> Six percent of on-reserve houses are without sewage services.
> Most First Nations people spend more than 30 percent of their income
Source: Assembly of First Nations