November 26, 2005

Canada sets up $4.3 bln aboriginal aid plan

By Allan Dowd

KELOWNA, British Columbia (Reuters) - Government and
aboriginal leaders endorsed a C$5 billion (US$4.3 billion) plan
on Friday aimed at dramatically easing the dire povertyfaced by
Canada's native peoples within a decade.

But with some key details of the plan still to be worked
out, and a federal election poised to begin within days, the
leaders were forced to defend against suggestions their lofty
goals would never be enacted.

"We have looked at some of the failings of our country and
embraced the idea that we can improve," said British Columbia
Premier Gordon Campbell, a key organizer of the historic
two-day summit in Kelowna.

The leaders endorsed a plan that would see the federal
government provide new funding for problems such as housing,
health and education that aboriginal leaders say have mired
them in poverty for more than a century.

The plan also includes clearly defined targets to make sure
that progress is actually being made.

"There's not a lot of wiggle room," said Prime Minister
Paul Martin, who said they would have another meeting in two or
three years to check on the progress.

The meeting included Martin and the leaders of all 13
provinces and territories, and the heads of major Metis, native
Indian and Inuit groups.

"We have seen how far we can go in two years, imagine how
far we can go in ten years," said Phil Fontaine, national chief
of the Assembly of First Nations.

But the gathering ended under the shadow of a looming and
potentially bitter election campaign, expected to kick off next
week with a vote early in the new year.

New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton, who made a
surprise visit to the meeting on Friday, said his smaller
left-leaning party would support the measures.

Fontaine dismissed concerns that an agreement reached with
the Liberal government would be scuttled if the opposition
Conservatives win the vote expected to happen in early or

The federal government has earmarked new spending of C$1.8
billion for education, C$1.3 billion for health care and C$1.6
billion for housing. The five-year plan has a total estimated
price tag of C$5.08 billion.

The goals include cutting infant mortality, youth suicides
and diabetes by 50 percent in ten years, and increasing
aboriginal employment levels by 50 percent over the decade.

Aboriginal leaders said a key change in the plan from
earlier government proposals was the increased role of native
groups in running the programs.

Census figures show about 1.3 million Canadians, or about
4.4 percent of the population, have some aboriginal ancestry.
But an estimated 40 percent of the native population lives in
poverty, compared with 15.7 percent for the country as a whole.

Not all aboriginal groups supported the plan being
discussed, with critics complaining that it could ignore the
growing number of natives who have left the mostly rural
reserve system to live in urban areas.