Thank you, Mr. Chairman. It is good to be here.
I was in opposition for thirteen years, so I know what that's like. One of the things about being in this position is that I do miss being on committees and interfacing with all of our colleagues from all parties. It's good to be here and to have an opportunity to do that today.
Minister Baird has asked me to support him in two areas: the Americas and consular affairs. I'll begin with a brief overview of our engagement in the Americas.
You're aware, I'm sure, that Prime Minister Harper made the Americas a foreign policy priority in 2007. Four years later I believe we are dynamically engaged and dedicated to a more prosperous, secure, and democratic hemisphere. There have been more than 150 high-level Canadian visits to the region throughout the past four years, including Prime Minister Harper's most recent visit this August. We have more free trade agreements in the Americas than in any other region in the world.
Increasing economic opportunity, though, requires peace and stability. Security and governance challenges in the region pose a direct and indirect threat, not only to residents of the area but to Canada and Canadian interests. We've invested nearly $2 billion in the last three years to improve security and strengthen democratic institutions in the region, through international assistance, multilateral contributions, and security-focused programming.
I think it's important to emphasize, because we're just starting to realize this in the broader Canadian public, that the Americas present tremendous opportunities for Canadians. Our renewed engagement focuses on expanding our commercial and investment ties, as Minister Baird said, with the world, and, in the Americas case, with Brazil especially, and with our existing FTA partners. We want to ensure that Canadian companies benefit from the agreements that have been put together with our partners in the Americas.
We are also planning to build on our multilateral hemispheric efforts to combat transnational organized crime. Our government will continue to support our neighbours to strengthen institutions and build capacity for stability and growth, while sharing our best practices and promoting Canadian values.
I can say from travelling around, and I know Minister Baird will say the same, that the respect for Canada is unbelievable. It's very striking. One of the highlights of this portfolio is to see how well regarded Canada is in the Americas, and I believe around the world.
Colleagues, we're very committed to the Organization of American States. It is the primary multilateral organization in the hemisphere, and it's the only one of which Canada is a member. Our contributions to the Americas come from across government—a whole host of departments, agencies, and crown corporations.
My other mandate is consular affairs. You may know that our government was the very first government to explicitly designate a minister responsible for this area.
Canadians love to travel. In 2010, Canadians made more than 56 million trips out of the country. The vast majority of these trips go off without a hitch, but even with the best preparations, some Canadians do encounter difficulties.
Last year alone, in 2011, more than 228,000 consular cases were opened. Of these, more than 6,700 were distress-related cases. Those included arrest, detentions, deaths, and medical emergencies.
Some consular cases garner considerable public attention, and some of you have been assisted in that, shall we say. But these actually represent less than 1% of the cases that are handled by consular officials across the world.
I should also point out that the past 18 months have really tested our capacity to help our fellow Canadians. There have been some 50 international crises, in 36 countries, in the last year and a half alone. These include crises in Egypt, Libya, and Japan, as well as our voluntary evacuation in Syria, to which Minister Baird just referred.
There is something very helpful that has occurred with respect to these, and that is the recent opening of the Emergency Watch and Response Centre at the Foreign Affairs building here in Ottawa.
Mr. Chairman, your committee might want to take the opportunity to tour this facility. It's state-of-the-art. Before, people who were dealing with evacuations and crises were in the basement, all crammed together. This allows a state-of-the-art facility, which is very impressive.
The centre provides a platform for a coordinated whole-of-government response to emergencies abroad. It's equipped to host not only emergency workers from DFAIT but other federal partner organizations, such as Citizenship and Immigration.
Mr. Chairman, colleagues have conducted outreach activities across Canada and will continue to do that. The purpose of this is to raise awareness of consular services. We want to better ensure that Canadians have the knowledge they need to make informed and responsible decisions before going abroad. At the end of the day, no one else can keep you safe. It's really up to you and the decisions you make.
We have held discussions with stakeholders in the travel industry and with academic institutions. I believe we're building very helpful partnerships that will assist us in providing useful information and advice to travellers and promote a message of prevention.
More than three million Canadians go to Mexico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic each and every year. We have met with those countries' top government officials on people-to-people issues that are important to Canadian travellers. We feel that building these relationships will help to address systemic consular irritants. It has already proven to contribute to resolution of specific cases.
This type of international engagement has been the first ever preventative citizen-focused outreach, providing a tangible demonstration that the Canadian government does care and is very interested in the safety of Canadians travelling abroad.
Again, I thank you for the opportunity to be here today. Many of you have spoken to me or my office about cases of particular concern to you.
We welcome your questions at this time.