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Kelowna, 13 years later

Canada’s 21st Prime Minister Paul Martin on the Kelowna Accord – why he worked so hard on it, and what it might have accomplished

After 18 months of painstakingly crafted consultations and negotiations, Prime Minister Paul Martin felt he was witnessing – and had helped to shape – history.

“All of us around the table – federal, provincial and territorial leaders, and certainly myself – felt that we had crossed a threshold that absolutely had to be crossed,” says Martin, who spoke to The Orca from his office in Montreal.

This November marks 13 years since the Kelowna Accord, the result of an 18-month consultative process that involved the federal government, provincial and territorial governments, and five national Indigenous organizations.

It was perhaps Canada’s most ambitious and far-reaching attempt to “close the gaps” in the standard of living between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians.

Just four days after the Accord was signed, Parliament was dissolved. In the subsequent election, Martin’s minority government was defeated, and the Accord was never implemented.


The harsh reality is undeniable: on almost every socio-economic indicator, Indigenous Canadians lag far behind the Canadian average.

“Even after we began to abolish residential schools in the 1960s, governments continued to tragically underfund all the social needs of Canada’s Indigenous communities,” says Martin.

It’s not about welfare, but the basic social services most Canadians take for granted and, in many cases, don’t even realize are vastly superior to those offered in Indigenous communities.

Consider education, says Martin. “Unless you’re a descendent of the British aristocracy, none of us would be doing as well as we are had somebody not come up with the idea of free public schools. Think what Canada would look like without them.”

Yet at the time negotiations started in 2004, First Nations youth were more likely to be incarcerated than graduate from high school. Infant mortality in Indigenous communities was almost 20% higher than in the general Canadian population.

“The whole question of early childhood is particularly poignant. It all begins with the earliest (stages of) childhood,” says Martin. “That’s essentially where good health – or poor  health, both physical and mental  is established - in the first five years of life.”

All these factors create a vicious circle of disadvantage.

“Government and industry are begging First Nations to engage in partnerships,” says Ellis Ross, the BC Liberal MLA for Skeena, “but when I first became a councillor, I didn’t know how to check into a hotel. Graduates today study physics and calculus. I had Grade 11 math.”

“I bought a digital dictionary to keep with me in negotiations – someone would say something like ‘fiduciary.’ I’d quietly look that up; what does that mean? I realized just about everyone at our table was in the same boat.”

“Around that time, I was growing more and more aware of how impossible it was to get First Nations out of poverty,” says Ross who, at that time, was just beginning his political career as councillor of the Haisla First Nation.

“I stopped going to Assembly of First Nations meetings, I thought it was all just talk, none of which is going to help my people,” says Ross. “When I saw the Kelowna Accord, I was just like ‘who cares.’”


“I felt very strongly that the status quo had to be turned around and turned around as quickly as possible,” says Martin. “The fastest-growing segment of our population is Indigenous. To undercut their social needs to that extent, is not only immoral, it’s economic lunacy.”

The only way to start was to listen.

Courtesy Martin Family Initiative

“The Indigenous leaders told us what they wanted on the table for negotiation,” says Martin. “I said I wanted them to set the agenda,” says Martin. “We knew the importance of consultation for Indigenous peoples, so we said that we would follow their schedule.”

The first formal meeting was held on April 19, 2004, with nearly 150 participants. From Ottawa: the Prime Minister and his entire cabinet. Various officials from provincial and territorial governments. From Canada’s national Aboriginal groups: representatives from 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.

Grand Chief Edward John of northern B.C.’s Tl’azt’en Nation was one of those leaders.

“We had our own discussions with (then-) Premier Gordon Campbell, and some federal ministers, and came prepared with a written document,” says John. The document outlined the B.C. Indigenous communities’ priorities for negotiation. These included economic development, health, housing, education, and treaty rights.

“The Indigenous leadership set the tables for negotiation and began the discussions,” said Martin. “Periodically, negotiations would stop so that the Indigenous peoples could go back to their respective communities and consult.”

Martin ensured the resources were committed up front. Finance Minister Ralph Goodale set aside $5 billion for the subsequent five years in the government's books  and Martin said there would be a commitment for another $5 billion after that.

Not all Indigenous leaders thought the negotiations and eventual Accord were worth pursuing.

“I didn’t pay much attention to it,” says Ross. “I was trying to find alternatives. I didn’t think we could solve these issues without First Nations looking at their own leadership structure.”

The problem, as Ross saw it, was that the vast differences between individual Indigenous communities meant establishing common needs was effectively impossible.

“Some communities were saying ‘we’re going to get paved roads, water, and sewer’ – that’s great, but my community’s had that since the ‘60s,” says Ross.

“So then what about our needs? If we’re [in the same category] as those other First Nations – it’s a big difference.”

Those kinds of doubts were understandable, which is why Martin insisted on breaking talks regularly.

“Indigenous leaders wanted to make sure they were bringing their people along with them and that’s exactly what happened,” says Martin.

It meant a longer process, but according to Martin and John, it was time well spent.

“It didn’t just happen overnight,” says John. “Roundtables convened across the country. A lot of preparation work went into those tables.”

“It could have been a shorter negotiation, but nowhere near as successful,” says Martin.

It took 18 months.


It all led up to that day in Kelowna – and the sense that history was being made.

“We walked away with an agreement,” says John. “The commitments Paul Martin made were important to us.”

But even as the country’s leaders celebrated, the spectre of a federal election loomed.

“It was too late in the day,” says John. “It was an election budget, which to me isn’t a very good place to make a commitment,” because future governments would not necessarily be bound by the Accord.

Four days later, Martin’s government was dissolved and his Liberal Party lost the subsequent election.

“The Accord was criticized [by some] as written on a napkin,” says John. “Had they won, I believe the budget would have been fully there.”


Stephen Harper’s new Conservative government believed it had a mandate to reduce Ottawa’s spending – and the new multibillion-dollar Accord was an obvious target. After all, the money hadn’t even been spent.

“One thing they  said was that the $5 billion wasn’t booked,” says Martin. “It was booked. There was no doubt about the money.”

As prime minister, Harper didn’t implement the Accord, but he did make a formal apology to former students of residential schools, which both Martin and John appreciated. But Martin says he I couldn't believe the government would walk away from the one tangible move the apology deserved.

Despite no longer being in government, Martin made every effort to persuade his successor. He stayed on to serve as a Member of Parliament and introduced a motion requiring the new government to honour the Accord.

“I went before the Parliamentary Committee and the Conservatives did everything they could to fight against the Accord.  However, the motion passed and became the law of the land, says Martin.

There was still one other card to play: the back, unofficial channel. After all, you’d have to think sitting prime ministers would almost always take calls from former prime ministers.

While he won’t go into what was said behind closed doors, Martin says he “made his views very clear.”

Around then, “we realized the Accord was dead in the water,” says John. “In the end, it all went sideways.”

“When I saw the Accord fail,” says Ross, “it was just what I expected.”


Martin believes Kelowna will be remembered as a missed opportunity.

“We lost ten years. That’s half a generation. Think of the young people who would have benefited during those ten years. Think of the progress that would have been made in housing, clean water, health care, and education,” says Martin.

“We’d be so much further ahead, and the momentum that would have been created would have led to far greater results.”

For their part, Ross and John both respectfully disagree.

“It’s all speculation, because it didn’t happen in the end. But I’m not sure how things would have changed,” says John.

“I don’t think the results would have gotten down to the people who truly, truly need it,” says Ross. “The Kelowna Accord was ambitious – but I think it was much too advanced for its time.”

“I think Paul Martin meant well, but this has been going on for 50 or 60 years, and all those [federal leaders] had good intentions.”

John notes that it would all come down to political will.

“There have been significant court decisions that governments have ignored; the implementation is still waiting.”

In B.C., with its treaty system and the often contentious questions of rights, title, and what those mean in a practical sense, the Accord may have created more clarity.

Asked if relations with First Nations in B.C. are different, John is direct: “very.”

“We’re very proactive and litigious here, because we weren’t getting anywhere too fast in the political realm. Martin made some significant commitments – you just always hope they’re acted on.”

Martin says these promises and more significantly, the $10 billion over 10 years, wouldn’t merely have made a difference, but transformed Canada.

“It would have led to a lessening of poverty and a greater quality of life. We would have seen the results. But unfortunately because the Kelowna Accord wasn't honoured, we’re ten years behind.”

Maclean Kay is Editor-in-Chief of The Orca