Lake Country mayor James Baker has a unique perspective on native affairs in this country.
As a municipal politician he knows the intricacies of working with the federal government as well as with First Nations groups such as the Okanagan Indian Band, which has reserves in and around Lake Country.
As a retired professor, he taught anthropology and archaeology and the study of cultures.
And among his students at Okanagan College were the chiefs of the two major Indian bands operating in the Central Okanagan: Byron Louis of the OKIB as well as Robert Louie of the Westbank First Nation.
Baker says the current state of affairs with First Nations and the relationship between native groups and the government can date back to the ill-fated Kelowna Accord, negotiated right here in Kelowna in 2005.
“A lot of bands thought they were further ahead with the Kelowna Accord,” said Baker. “They were pleased with that it but it was scrapped and I think most of the issues First Nations people have with the Conservative government now is because of that. They settled it with a lot less generosity than it should have been and it’s been on ongoing issue ever since.”
In 2005, the leaders of five national aboriginal organizations came together in Kelowna with the federal government as well as provincial and territorial governments to conclude an 18-month-long consultation process.
The resulting Kelowna Accord proposed a number of initiatives on economic development, education, health and housing and included a $5.1 billion dollar investment over five years.
The problem was Paul Martin’s Liberal government was defeated shortly after the conference in 2005 and Stephen Harper took power. The Kelowna Accord was never fully implemented with the Conservatives saying while they agreed with the goals of the accord, they did not agree with the funding associated with it.
According to Baker, the relationship between First Nations groups and the federal government took a serious hit with the changes to the accord. Baker says while the issue of moving forward with First Nations concerns is complex, all it really is going to take is commitment from senior levels of government to fund much-needed help to First Nations groups.
“It could be done in very quick time if the federal and provincial government would put their minds to reconciling it,” said Baker. “There are issues that need to be addressed with funding and the ability for bands to manage their own affairs. It has been simply shown that if bands are given access to the resources they have had for tens of thousands of years they are able to manage them.”
Baker says First Nations groups should have been given fair treatment many many years ago but instead of allowing them to prosper, the federal government viewed Indians as a people that needed to be looked after like children instead of equal playing partners.
But when given the chance, he said many bands have found success and prosperity.
“Where band leaders have been able to get concessions from the federal or provincial government to tap into their resources, whether that be logging, mining or natural gas, they have shown they can manage their affairs to a much better extent than when they can only do things through Ottawa,” said Baker. “It’s hard enough for local government to get things out of Ottawa, never mind non-government groups.”
Baker said a commitment is needed to allow First Nations self government and the ability to prosper.
“They certainly are able to manage their self government because they had self government as individual bands and even as tribal associations for thousands of years and were able to make a living from the land,” said Baker. “They should still be able to but in a different manner now: In manufacturing, mining or logging, not as hunters and gatherers.”