An Open Letter from Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine to Conservative Party of Canada Leader Stephen Harper

CNW Group
January 15, 2006

OTTAWA, Jan. 14 /CNW Telbec/ -

Dear Mr. Harper:

I am writing you to raise several critically important issues which require your immediate attention and response. Because these issues are matters of important public policy for all Canadians you should know that I will be releasing this letter publicly.

Over the past several days you have sought through the media to clarify your party's position on the Kelowna First Ministers Meeting agreement and, secondly, on the residential school settlement agreement.

Your responses to both issues are of great concern. Should your party form the next government, we believe that your actions on these two important matters will indicate how the Conservative party will deal with our people in the years to come. Therefore your response to this letter will be weighed carefully by our people when they make their decision of who to vote for on January 23rd.

With respect to the residential schools Settlement Agreement, The Globe and Mail reported on Friday, January 13, that: "The Conservative Leader said, however, that he would follow through with the agreement to compensate victims of residential school abuse, although he may make slight adjustments". We would like to know precisely what you mean by "slight adjustments". Given the complexity of the Settlement Agreement, the great difficulty in achieving it, and the terms of the abeyance agreements of the class actions, even the slightest of changes will legally undo the Agreement and send thousands of cases and numerous class actions back into the courts. This will result in severe legal and financial consequences for Canada and untold social and personal consequences for First Nations communities and individual survivors.

We believe the Settlement Agreement is an important and historic milestone in the relationship between Canada and its first peoples. Any retreat will be seen as a fundamental betrayal and will result in a massive lost of trust and even greater harm than has already been inflicted on the survivors and their families.

If the Agreement is destroyed, the likelihood of resolving the residential school legacy or restoring trust will be next to none, at least in my lifetime or yours. Most cruelly, destruction of the Agreement will deny elderly residential school survivors their promised early payment which was due to be received by them in a few weeks time. Many of them will die in the ensuing months without experiencing the satisfaction or comfort the symbolic early payment and a settlement agreement would provide. They will never have the chance to reconcile with Canada or the churches. These will be the unintended but unconscionable results of tinkering with the Settlement Agreement. I am sure that you or any other leader or party would not want this to happen.

We would also like to know your party's position on an apology for the residential schools tragedy. The Political Agreement we signed with Canada on May 30, 2005 recognized the need for an apology and although the apology was not a part of the Settlement Agreement, (for constitutional reasons only) it was and is understood by all parties to the Agreement to be an integral and component of the full, fair, and just settlement we seek with Canada. We have been engaged in discussions with the government regarding an apology and fully expect that it will be given by the Prime Minister in a significant ceremony.

Of equal concern is your published party platform, which is silent on the comprehensive residential school Settlement Agreement of November 20, 2005 and merely makes reference to the much more limited March, 2005 recommendations of the Aboriginal Affairs Committee. We hope this is an oversight on your part and that it will be will be corrected as soon as possible. If it is not an oversight and your party's commitment to the resolution of the residential schools legacy is solely to the Committee's recommendations, we must strongly protest. Not only would such a commitment mean that you intend to do much more than make "slight adjustments" to the settlement package, it would fundamentally alter the agreement by taking away its central component, the lump sum payment. It would also violate the terms of the Political Agreement signed by the AFN and Canada on May 30, 2005, which formed the basis of the negotiations process and the ultimate settlement package. Any attempt to dismantle or diminish either the Political Agreement or the Settlement Agreement will be vigorously opposed by every First Nation in Canada and by millions of Canadians who have come to understand the need to bring closure to this tragic chapter in our history. I urge you to clarify both of your statements, your party platform on this matter, and your position with respect to an apology from the Prime Minister for the residential schools experiment era, and to do so today.

Our other key concern is your party's lack of commitment to the outcomes from the First Ministers Meeting on Aboriginal Issues. Your response, as reported by the media and highlighted on the Conservative party website, is not only deeply troubling; it is based on errors of fact. I believe it is important for you to be aware of the correct facts in order for you to better determine an appropriate response to questions about the Kelowna agreement.

The agreement reached included a carefully considered implementation plan. All governments agreed on a process of regional tripartite agreements to elaborate on the direction set ensuring relevance to each particular region.

The commitments also guaranteed a follow-up process with a First Nation Multilateral Forum and future First Minister Meeting, as well as a set of indicators for monitoring progress. Federal, Provincial, Territorial and First Nations governments' accountability processes were therefore firmly established in Kelowna.

The Conservative Party press release also says that there was no agreement about how monies would be divided between on and off-reserve or between provinces. These statements reveal a fundamental lack of understanding of the Kelowna agreement. The division between on and off-reserve was made explicit on each subject matter, assigning specific allocations for specific programs or activities. In addition, it was also clear that the monies would not be "divided up among provinces" but rather the First Nation portion, for example, would directly facilitate First Nation government capacity development in coordination with other governments.

Finally, the Conservative statement says that the Liberals have not budgeted for this expenditure. In fact, the full expenditure is budgeted within the Liberal plan as can be referenced in their platform released on January 11, 2006. Likewise, the New Democratic Party has identified how this money would be allocated within their plan. In contrast, when we examine the Conservative spending promises, there is not a single reference to spending for the implementation of the Kelowna agreement. This demonstrates to us that the only way the Conservatives could respect the Kelowna agreement would be to run a deficit.

First Nations have waited a very long time and have worked very hard on this agreement. It represents years of dedicated effort and waiting through expenditure and program review processes and at least three federal budgets until, finally, the First Nation agenda has made it onto Canada's agenda. Now it would appear that the Conservatives are saying that, if elected, First Nations would be at best sidelined and at worst, ignored. From reading your platform it appears that the Conservatives know what is best for us and will develop their own plan without our involvement. We had truly hoped that this approach - emblematic of Canada's disgraceful past colonial relationship with our peoples - was behind us. No one can design solutions for us.

It has never worked in the past and never will. Indeed, we continue to suffer the consequences of similar wrong- headed actions of the past.

Solutions to our problems must be driven by our people, for our people. Real solutions must not only accept these fundamental principles of equality and respect, they must also embrace the moral, political and legal responsibilities of Canada to work with us to close the poverty gap between First Nations and Canadians. I urge you to reconsider your position with respect to First Nation issues and the fiscal plan articulated in your party platform.

At this time, we continue to review the entire Conservative platform. As other issues arise in reading and analyzing the platform, I will communicate these concerns to you directly.

I look forward to receiving your response.

Yours Truly,

Phil Fontaine

National Chief

For further information: Don Kelly, AFN Communications Director, (613) 241-6789 ext. 320 or cell (613) 292-2787; Ian McLeod, AFN Bilingual Communications Officer, (613) 241-6789 ext. 336 or cell (613) 859-4335; Nancy Pine, Communications Advisor, Office of the National Chief, (613) 241-6789 ext. 243 or cell (613) 298-6382


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