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FMM--it's all about the election now.

Over and over again in Ottawa in early December, the message was "get out and vote."

With close to $9 billion worth of commitments--when you combine the figures from the residential school compensation agreement and the promises made during the First Ministers' Meeting (FMM) in Kelowna--the only thing left to bring it all to fruition is the election of a government that will follow through. That was National Chief Phil Fontaine's message and it was repeated frequently throughout the three-day special chiefs' assembly that wrapped up on Dec. 8.

Fontaine pointed out that 63 federal ridings have at least five per cent First Nation population, while 15 ridings have 10 per cent. If First Nation people actually went out to vote for a candidate that will support the FMM initiative, they're votes would make a difference, he said.

During a Dec. 2 phone press conference, Fontaine said the fact that the Liberal government was in its last days during the FMM was a concern, but he felt that the commitments made by the prime minister and the premiers would hold together despite the election call. He pointed out that 18 different parties, representing political parties of all stripes, participated in the FMM.

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"One thing in our favor was that this was a very public and transparent process. The entire country was watching the FMM. The commitments made there were public and it will be very difficult for any government to retreat from the commitments," he said.

The Assembly of First Nations followed through on its election emphasis by giving representatives of five political parties a chance to address the chiefs. That group included three Aboriginal Affairs critics--the NDP's Pat Martin, the Conservative Party of Canada's Jim Prentice and the Bloc Quebecois' Bernard Cleary--along with Liberal Justice Minister Irwin Cotler and Barb Wardlaw, interim leader of the newly-minted First Peoples National Party of Canada (FPNP).

The chiefs-in-assembly put each of the visitors through an intense workout.

The Bloc Quebecois' Cleary, a citizen of the Mashteuiatsh First Nation, was the first to appear. He sent chiefs hustling to the back of the room to pick up their head set translators because his entire presentation was in French.

He said the Bloc shared First Nations' concerns about protecting their traditional languages and wanted to "combat injustices" faced by Indigenous peoples. He acknowledged that the social and economic conditions of First Nations needed to be addressed.

Urged by Grand Chief Doug Kelly to hold the next federal government to the commitments made at the first ministers' meeting, Cleary responded, "The Bloc Quebecois will continue to work on those files."

Pat Martin followed the next day.

"By way of a message from [NDP leader] Jack Layton, I can tell you categorically that the NDP will use any and all political influence that it may have in the next Parliament to ensure the implementation of the commitments made at the first ministers' meeting," he said. "Let me make it abundantly clear that the NDP does not believe that the $5.1 billion announced at Kelowna is anywhere near adequate to make up for the need created by years of negligence."

He also told the chiefs that the $5.1 figure included some money that had already been announced.

"I do have to make it abundantly clear as well that the $5.1 billion is the figure being used has within it--as we now know from the minister's office--the $1.2 billion that was negotiated by the NDP in the 2005 budget. That's $700 million towards housing and $500 million towards post-secondary education. I should point out that there was no spending in the 2005 budget until Jack Layton negotiated that money into the budget," Pat Martin said. "So that leaves $3.9 billion over five years to deal with the overwhelming need and the squalid social conditions right across the country. We should make it clear in all of our messages that we do not view that as an overwhelming amount of money."

As an example, he put the housing dollars into context.

"It should be common knowledge that INAC spends $261 million per year for housing right across the country and that includes construction and renovation of existing housing. And that figure hasn't changed since 1992," he said. "There's been nine years of record surpluses in that time. So the $700 million that Jack Layton negotiated into the 2005 budget over two years, represents $350 million a year. That more than doubles the total contribution for housing. I condemn the government of the day for going through nine surplus budgets and never allocating one nickel for housing in their INAC budget. I believe that's negligence that borders on cruelty, frankly."

Irwin Cotler did not discuss the election but instead talked about justice issues. He ended his remarks by saying that Aboriginal justice would be a priority for "me personally and the government."

"I'm delighted to be able to be here and to participate in what I take to be the common cause that brings us together at the most profound existential level and that is the struggle against injustice as part of the larger struggle for justice," he said.

He told the chiefs the first thing he said publicly after being appointed justice minister "was that I would be guided in my work by one over-arching principle and that is the pursuit of justice and within that the protection and promotion of equality."

The chiefs listened politely to his remarks and then took full advantage of the opportunity to question Canada's Justice minister on tactics employed by his officials against the assertion of Aboriginal rights.

Due to changes in the scheduled time for her remarks, Windspeaker was not present when Barb Wardlaw, the First Peoples National Party's (FPNP) interim leader, addressed the chiefs. In an e-mail message after the assembly, she told us about this new party.

"The Canadian political environment is very volatile and fragile at this time and the people are looking for honest relief. I believe that the FPNP will initiate positive change that will meet the needs of the very diverse people and territories/communities."

Jim Prentice reassured the chiefs that his Conservative Party of Canada is ready to follow through on the FMM commitments.

"I just wanted to assure you that my door is always open and that we will work together to deal with all of the issues that were talked about at the First Ministers' Meeting. A Conservative Party in government will be committed to fighting Aboriginal poverty and I look forward to working with all of you in the future," he said.

He took on what he called the "mythology" that a Conservative government would not be good for First Nation people.

He listed a number of positive developments over the years that happened under a Conservative government. The treaty-making process was a Conservative invention, he said.

"It was a Conservative government that removed the prohibition that prevented Aboriginal people from hiring lawyers," he said.

Registered Indians were given the right to vote under a Conservative government, he said, adding that the BC Treaty Commission was created by Brian Mulroney.

He then turned to the FMM.

"I was there. I've been through the documents. There is not a single word in the communique that I disagree with or that I think, frankly, most Canadians would disagree with. The issue is the spending commitments that were set out in a single-page document that was circulated at the end of the meeting. I spoke to many of the premiers and I spoke to many of the Aboriginal leaders and I could find no consensus on how the money which was under discussion is going to be spent," he said. "I think the FMM was an important meeting but it is very much a work in progress. There was no consensus as to how the money will be split up amongst the Aboriginal groups. There was no consensus as to how it will be split up between on-reserve and off-reserve issues, how it will be divided amongst the provinces and the territories that were at the table. I also think, from my point of view, that there is some confusion as to which of that money is new money and which of it is an existing spending envelope money which has already been approved by the government of Canada."

He did say that $5 billion was not enough to solve the problems.

By Paul Barnsley

Windspeaker Staff Writer

OTTAWA
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Title Annotation:First Ministers' Meeting
Author:Barnsley, Paul
Publication:Windspeaker
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jan 1, 2006
Words:1425
Previous Article:First ministers' deal gets chiefs' approval.
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