Editorial 

Besides election fatigue, what are the issues?

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A month from now, when all of the holiday stress is behind us, a brand new year stretches out before us and people may actually start to pay attention to the federal election, the vertical integration that the Olympics and First Nations issues have begun to impose on Canadian politics – at least in this province – may start to become apparent.

After a provincial election in May, civic elections last month, and with the last federal election only a year and a half ago, B.C. residents can be excused for ignoring this federal election, particularly over the Christmas-New Year’s period. But regardless of how heavy election fatigue may weigh on British Columbians, there are a couple of issues where the federal parties, the government in Victoria and some civic governments in B.C. could find common ground. The threads that run through all three levels of government are the Olympics and First Nations.

There’s little doubt that when the 2010 Games open First Nations will be almost as visible as the athletes. That’s fine. The Squamish, Lil’wat, Musqueum and Tsleil-Waututh have participated in the Olympics from the first days of the bid and their involvement has been and will be crucial to the success of the Games. Their success – and by 2010 the signs and stories of that success should be more than First Nations art – will be proudly shown off to the world by the federal, provincial and civic governments of the day, and of course by the First Nations themselves.

But before we get to that day, all three levels of government and the First Nations have problems to overcome. Among them…

The provincial government, which has a mandate through to the spring of 2009, may be faced with Olympic cost overruns, as VANOC’s John Furlong warned two weeks ago. Labour shortages, both during the construction boom prior to the Olympics and in the anticipated tourism boom after, are also concerns.

The provincial government has also come to recognize the importance of reaching agreements with First Nations and the uncertainty of the current situation with regard to land use issues and investment in the province. To that end, Victoria has taken the lead on negotiating interim or side agreements with First Nations, in the hope that it is laying the foundations for actual treaties.

First Nations are looking for means to control their futures. Some benefits are flowing to local First Nations through the Olympics, but most First Nations in B.C. are still looking for long-term, sustainable means of participating in the provincial economy while protecting traditional values.

Local governments have local issues, but in one resort municipality in the Sea to Sky corridor the issues include financing a multiplex arena, financing an athletes village/residential neighbourhood, and finding new sources of income. Both levels of senior government, the Lil’wat and the Squamish may be part of the solutions.

Meanwhile, the most immediate problem facing the federal politicians is getting elected.

At this point, First Nations are well down the list of priority issues Paul Martin, Stephen Harper and Jack Layton are discussing. And for most Canadians who are paying attention to the federal election, First Nations sit below health care, crime, trade, child care and a bunch of other issues when it comes to determining how they will vote. So it doesn’t look like there will be many campaign promises relating to First Nations.

Similarly, the 2010 Olympics are not something most Canadians are worried about right now, so there is little political capital to be gained by federal politicians promising more money for the Games during this campaign. Besides, the B.C. government is on the hook if there are any cost overruns; the federal government is not.

But it is still early days in this election. If in mid-January the polls show British Columbia’s 36 seats could determine who forms the next government in Ottawa, the campaign promises may start to flow.

Again, at this stage it’s hard to see how promises related to the Olympics or First Nations would translate to more votes, but the groundwork for future federal commitments could be laid during this campaign – particularly if, as expected, another minority government is returned to Ottawa.

Imagine, for instance, if there was yet another federal election sometime in 2007. By that time Olympic venue costs would be solidified and construction would be well underway. And British Columbians may be worried about the impact an Olympic deficit would have on the economy.

Efforts have been made to head off the pending labour shortage, with new training programs in construction and tourism industries, including programs specifically designed for First Nations students. Whether there will be enough skilled people trained remains to be seen, but this is another area where federal money could materialize.

British Columbians may not be paying federal politicians much attention right now, but we may find we share mutual interests in the weeks and months ahead.

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