Okalik: no jitters over Tory victory

Aboriginal leaders divided over Conservative plans


Unlike some national aboriginal leaders, Nunavut’s premier, Paul Okalik, says the prospect of a Conservative victory in the Jan. 23 federal election doesn’t worry him.

“I’m committed to working with whatever prime minister forms the next government,” Okalik said this week.

Recent national opinion polls suggest Stephen Harper’s resurgent Conservative party will win the Jan. 23 election, and might even gain the 155 seats needed for a majority government.

But Okalik isn’t worried. He said he believes Harper will honour promises that Paul Martin, who may soon be ousted as prime minister, made this past November at the first minister’s meeting on aboriginal issues held in Kelowna, B.C.

Okalik said working out the details of the Kelowna arrangements – many of which are still unclear and murky – is “my prime focus.”

Martin’s Kelowna commitments would see Ottawa spend about $5.1 billion over the next five years, mostly on housing, health, and education for aboriginal people.

They include a promise to build 1,200 new social housing units “in the Far North” and to reduce the housing gap by 35 per cent over the next five years, and by 70 per cent over the next 10 years.

Okalik said he trusts Harper because of what the Conservative leader said in a letter sent last week to all three territorial premiers:

“The Conservative Party of Canada agrees with the targets that were established to reduce aboriginal poverty on the basis of five to 10 year plans, as discussed at the First Ministers Meeting in Kelowna,” Harper said in his letter.

But Harper also said the Kelowna gathering didn’t produce a “concerted financial plan” for how much of the new money would be spent – when, where and for whom.

“In particular, no agreements have been made concerning how the proposed federal financial commitment of $5.1 billion would be split amongst provinces, territories and aboriginal organizations (ITK, AFN, CAP and MNC), nor how this money should be divided Aboriginal Canadians on and off reserves,” Harper told the territorial premiers.

This means, Harper said, that “important details” must be “examined, discussed, and agreed upon by all stakeholders involved.”

Okalik admitted that many details flowing from the Kelowna arrangments still need to be worked out.

For example, he said the GN still can’t confirm how many of the 1,200 social housing units will end up in Nunavut.

“There have been discussions, but no conclusion has been reached. I was hoping to get that resolved before the election campaign but, unfortunately, that was not possible,” Okalik said.

As for the national aboriginal organizations who lobbied for the Kelowna arrangements, they appear to be sharply divided.

Last week, the Assembly of First Nations and the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami issued virtually identical press releases asking Harper to clarify the Conservative party’s position on the Kelowna commitments.

That’s because the Conservative finance critic, Monte Solberg, said the Kelowna arrangements were “written on the back of a napkin,” while the Conservative aboriginal affairs critic, Jim Prentice, said his party would honour them.

But despite ITK’s suspicions about the Conservatives, ITK president Jose Kusugak said he’s ready to work with whoever forms the next government.

The Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, which claims to represent more people than the AFN, said this week that they are endorsing the Conservative aboriginal platform. (The CAP organization represents non-status and off-reserve aboriginal people, including urban aboriginals

“While we agree with the objective of the agreement reached in Kelowna, we need to see more detail about the provisions of the agreement…” the congress said in a statement this week.

As for the devolution of control over public lands and resources from the federal government to the GN, Okalik also said he likes Harper’s position.

The GN recently appointed Tony Penniket, the former NDP premier of the Yukon, to act as its chief negotiator for a devolution agreement, and they’re eager to start talks so that a devolution deal for Nunavut can be worked out by 2008.

In his letter to the three premiers, Harper said the Conservative party is “committed to the orderly devolution of decision-making away from the Ottawa to the territories.”

That’s a message that Okalik, for whom devolution is a major priority, likes the sound of.

“It’s encouraging. I must say that I’m encouraged by it. The commitment is made,” he said.

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