Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I would be pleased to do so.
I'd like to say good morning to you and to the members of the committee. Thank you very much. I look forward to our dialogue here today.
I thank you for the opportunity to discuss the main estimates of the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development with you and your colleagues this morning. I'm grateful for the attention this committee has given to my department's agenda over the past year—I guess to our collective agenda. I appreciate your consideration of these important issues, including post-secondary education and housing, as well as legislative initiatives such as Bill C-34 and Bill C-44, which are now before the committee.
I know we all share the same objective, which is to say improving the quality of life for aboriginal people and northerners.
You heard from Indian and Northern Affairs Canada's accounting officer, Deputy Minister Michael Wernick, a short time ago regarding the department's supplementary estimates. I would like to speak today in the context of this year's main estimates, the next step in the financial planning cycle, and we are determined to move forward to make a real and positive difference in the lives of aboriginal people and northerners.
The current 2007-08 main estimates include $6.3 billion for our department. This represents a net increase of $36 million from 2006-07.
One point I would like to emphasize, particularly for Monsieur Lemay, is that the main estimates are of course simply the first step in the fiscal cycle, the starting point. They do not include resources that will be allocated through supplementary estimates.
Mr. Chairman, funded by the main and supplementary estimates, we are determined to move forward in clearly defined ways through approaches and initiatives that will effect real change in aboriginal communities and furthermore will give aboriginal people the tools and organizational structures they need to take charge of their own future.
I have felt, from the time I became the minister, that we need to effect structural reforms, in particular to protect women and children and to ensure that women are in a position to move forward and advocate on behalf of their children.
First, we need to effect structural reform to protect women, children and families. Whether the reform is legislative, as is the case with the repealed section 67 of the Canadian Human Rights Act, or a change in policies and programs, we must ensure that aboriginal women, children and families have the same rights and have access to the same quality of services as all other Canadians.
Our continued work to address the issue of matrimonial real property and our recent partnership with the Province of Alberta and Alberta first nations to implement a new approach to child and family services are recent examples of new and innovative thinking, new approaches to the existing challenges in first nation communities. I'm confident that, working in partnership with the provinces, territories, and aboriginal groups, we can build on successes such as these.
Second, we have to consolidate economic development tools to obtain the maximum efficiency from our programs and services, and so that we can enable first nations to take charge of their own economic development. That is why the Aboriginal Business Canada program and the National Aboriginal Economic Development Board were unified under my department in December 2006. This is an important initiative, and there will be more said about it in the future. It is one of the important structural changes that needed to be made to ensure that the department has the tools to deal with economic development, which I think we all would agree is a significant part of the way forward.
Furthermore, under the aboriginal workplace partnership initiatives, we have formalized partnerships with local governments, influential businesses, and trade unions to promote the employment of an aboriginal labour force. I'm especially proud of the agreements that have been signed in the past several months, agreements such as those with Siemens Canada Limited in Saskatoon, the City of Edmonton, the Calgary Health Region, the Nova Scotia Nurses' Union, and the Nova Scotia Trucking Human Resource Sector Council. All of these agreements will bolster the number of employment opportunities available to aboriginal people.
To give you another example, this government allocated $300 million in budget 2007 for the establishment of the first nations market housing fund. This fund will enable first nation families and individuals to purchase, build, and renovate on-reserve housing that meets their specific needs and tastes. I think everyone in the room is familiar with the fact that a key aspect of this is the leverage that is available from the $300 million, leverage that would be in the nature of four or five to one. So it's not simply $300 million; it accesses private mortgage capital in excess of $1.5 billion, which will be available over time for first nations housing.
The program is expected to help finance the development of approximately 25,000 new housing units over the next 10 years, but the First Nations Housing Market Fund will not only encourage housing development, it will also help first nations people living on reserve to obtain bank loans, build equity and generate wealth through home ownership.
Third, there is a desperate need to address the existing approach to the resolution of aboriginal land claims. I'm happy to point out that there have been some marked recent successes. The Nunavik Inuit Land Claims Agreement, for instance, was signed in December of last year, resolving this country's last major Inuit land claim, Bill C-51.
Bill C-51, which ratifies this agreement, has recently been introduced in the House, and last year three treaties were also initialled in the province of British Columbia. These were the first to be initiated under the B.C. treaty process. However, much more needs to be done.
I know all of the members here today are eager to discuss these plans and to address the current untenable situation presented by the specific claims process. Although I'm not in a position to elaborate at this time, I'm pleased to note that we have committed to and intend to announce a new approach to the resolution of this long-standing national issue.
Fourth, we have to work to enable the participation of aboriginal people in major resource development opportunities. The close proximity of our first nations communities to resource development presents opportunities, allows people to participate in these projects in a meaningful manner, and to share in the social and economic benefits that are generated by these initiatives.
I know we've all seen examples of this sort of success in the past. I observed that in the context of Voisey's Bay, for example, close to 50% of the workforce at that facility are first nation citizens. If you go to the diamond mines in the Northwest Territories in the Tlicho area, you'll find that, as I recall, in excess of 30% of the people working at those facilities are first nation citizens.
So we are making progress.
This government recently passed regulations under the First Nations Commercial and Industrial Development Act that will enable the Fort McKay First Nation, in partnership with Shell Canada, to develop a multi-billion dollar oil sands mine in northern Alberta. This is the first initiative of its kind. The project will attract investors from around the world and create hundreds of meaningful, well-paying jobs for community residents.
And we have also dedicated $500 million to the Mackenzie Valley Socio-Economic Impact Fund. Committed in budget 2006, this fund will assist those communities whose development is affected by the proposed Mackenzie gas project, should the project proceed.
Fifth, my colleagues, we continue to work forward addressing the residential schools matter. I'm pleased to report to the committee that the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement has received final court approval, and now former students and their families must choose whether to stay in the agreement or remove themselves from it. All parties to this historic agreement have agreed to a fair resolution of this sad legacy and chapter in the history of our country.
Our new government recognizes the importance of achieving a fair and lasting resolution of the Indian residential schools legacy and of moving forward in partnership with aboriginal communities across Canada. You will be aware that in my early months as minister, I brought the closure, along with Minister Oda, to the negotiations surrounding the Indian residential school settlement. That's also why we supported the motion for the House of Commons to apologize for the legacy of the Indian residential school agreement. The apology took place a month or so ago.
We are moving forward with the implementation of the agreement at this point, potentially as early as September of this year, once the opt-out period is finished. In particular, we look forward to the important work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is an element of this historic agreement and which will provide a complete historic record of the unfortunate legacy of which we speak.
Not only is this department responsible for first nation, Inuit, and northern issues, I'm also the federal interlocutor for Métis and non-status Indians. My official work with Métis and non-status Indians and urban aboriginal people is to assist them in realizing their full economic and social potential. In this capacity, we recently announced a refocused urban aboriginal strategy in Edmonton, concentrating on job training and entrepreneurship for the nearly 50% of aboriginal people who live in cities and towns across the country.
The approach to the urban aboriginal strategy is based upon a focus on the larger metropolitan centres--12 in number, as I recall. The strategy unites federal, provincial, and municipal governments as well as aboriginal communities and organizations and invests $68.5 million over five years to improve life and employment skills, to promote entrepreneurship, and to provide support to aboriginal women, children, and families.
Mr. Chairman, you and your colleagues are quite aware that the north is an important part of my mandate. Canada's New Government is committed to working with Canada's three northern territories to develop the north's natural resources, and create jobs and prosperity for northerners and indeed for all Canadians.
The north holds a significant percentage of Canada's energy resources. They present an immense opportunity for exploration and development--investment for generations to come. Resource-based projects in the north include diamond mines, oil and gas exploration, and other mining activity. They've contributed to increased economic growth in the north over the past number of years.
This economic growth, besides being the means of improving quality of life for northerners, also serves to bolster Canadian sovereignty in the north, raising the profile of Canada. As an Arctic nation, we must do what we can to ensure that the current boom in the north continues, to the benefit of northerners and other Canadians alike.
The International Polar Year, 2007-08, was also launched on March 1. This will be another enabler of growth and development in the north. We expect that the research by Canadian and international scientists, funded through the International Polar Year program, will lead to new knowledge, environmental, health, and economic benefits to Canadians in the north and across our nation.
The two key themes for International Polar Year science—climate change impacts and adaptation, and the health and well-being of northern communities—will be important to many nations, given the global effects of climate change.
In closing, I feel it is essential to note that while funding is a crucial element in the success of our programs and initiatives, it is not the only significant factor. I have said before that continuing to fund existing programs without considering their validity or efficiency is not good enough. We must continue to consider whether the means by which we currently deliver services is truly producing the best results for aboriginal peoples and northerners. The funding provided in the main estimates is essential to maintain and advance programs to improve the quality of life for aboriginal people and northerners.
I welcome any questions or comments you may have.
Colleagues, I welcome any questions or comments you may have. It is a pleasure to be here. I know that we have a reservoir of knowledge at this table concerning aboriginal and northern issues, and I look forward to an opportunity to discuss this.