Thank you, Mr. Chair.
First of all, I would like to thank the committee for allowing me to appear today in response to the recent motion by the committee to discuss the main estimates for organizations and ministers responsible for regional development.
As you know—and you may have already heard this, job creation, economic growth and long-term prosperity are the absolute priority of our government. As Minister of State responsible for the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, I often visit all the Atlantic regions and I meet with various stakeholders from all walks of life in the four provinces. I am therefore able to see for myself the concrete results we have obtained for the residents and communities of Atlantic Canada.
With your permission, Mr. Chairman, I will use this opportunity to talk about the exercise undertaken by ACOA in 2010 to ensure more value for taxpayers' money, which is reflected in the main estimates you are considering. I will also say a few words about the priorities we're working on to improve the economic outcomes in Atlantic Canada.
Let me start by stating that Atlantic Canadian families, workers, entrepreneurs and, for that matter, all Canadian taxpayers overwhelmingly agree that their hard-earned tax dollars should be spent wisely, but also, and more importantly, effectively. This is especially true at this time of the year when we have all just have filed our income tax returns. That is why ACOA undertook in 2010, along with 12 other departments, a review of its spending to identify ways it could reduce its spending by 5%. At the core of this process was the importance of maintaining the high level of service that we provide to our small and medium sized businesses, our communities, and other economic stakeholders in Atlantic Canada.
We focused on finding ways we could improve our effectiveness and efficiencies, while ensuring that our programming remained strongly funded and our clients well served. As a result, we were able to implement savings, mainly by rethinking the way we structure and deliver our services.
With the advice I receive from my officials—and, of course, also, from what I see on the ground in Atlantic Canada—I want to assure all members of the committee that the agency's ability to deliver on its legislative mandate from Parliament is as strong as ever. All of ACOA's programs remain solidly funded and the department maintains its strong presence in every region of Canada. The agency is also as active as ever in supporting key government priorities, such as innovation, job creation, and international trade.
Another priority for me, in particular, and the department over the past few months has been to promote our Atlantic shipbuilding action plan. As you all know, the $33-billion initiative to renew Canada's naval and coast guard fleets, with the largest package going to Irving Shipbuilding in Halifax, represents a once in a lifetime opportunity for our region. As minister of ACOA, I know the importance of making sure that our small and medium sized businesses in the four Atlantic provinces, in urban and rural communities alike, are able to capitalize on this opportunity by becoming suppliers in the marine industry value chain.
This is exactly what this action plan is about. ACOA is working closely with our SMEs to help them understand the opportunities and the requirements, such as certification, that this industry has for all its suppliers.
The first step in our Atlantic shipbuilding action plan was to hold supplier development information sessions, which we held in February, March, and April. We organized 10 of these throughout the region. They were a resounding success. We had more than 823 business people from nearly 513 unique SMEs across Atlantic Canada participate.
As that process evolves we will continue to ensure that our SMEs have all the information and support they need. We are also working with our partners to help identify needs and are conducting research and analysis to broaden our understanding of the global marine sector. An important one is skills development and training, which will also draw our attention in the near future as it constitutes another leg of the Atlantic shipbuilding action plan.
I would now like to briefly speak of the support we offer to rural communities. As you may know, this is part of other government priorities. After the north, Atlantic Canada is the most rural region of the country. Just as other regions in the country, rural communities in Atlantic Canada must establish a solid economic foundation to support their residents and to prosper.
During the coming year, ACOA will continue to work with businesses, communities, Atlantic provincial governments, and other partners to create local opportunities. It will continue to support resource industries and rural economies which depend upon it, by investing in activities that improve the forestry sector's competitiveness in the region, diversifying the agricultural sector, increasing the sustainability of fisheries and advancing the technology used for mining and energy.
In all—and this may interest the members of the committee—ACOA invests over $120 million every year in Canada's Atlantic rural regions. This amount represents over 52% of program expenditures. It is used to help SMEs as well as our communities to seize opportunities and meet challenges. This situation is specific to rural regions in Atlantic Canada.
I would also like to briefly touch upon another priority, which is skilled labour. I am convinced you will all agree with me that skilled labour is essential to build a modern and competitive economy. However, before we start importing the skills our businesses need, we must work in collaboration with our community colleges and universities so that they may offer the programs and training our citizens need to get hired as welders, food processors, engineers, financial analysts, human resources specialists, and so forth.
To this end, ACOA is participating in planning and research efforts with the governments of all the Atlantic provinces as well as working with the universities and community colleges. The goal is to address the issues, gaps and trends associated with the available workforce. This collaboration with our educational institutions will help us ensure that our young people can take courses and receive the necessary training to benefit from good employment opportunities and help meet our needs in terms of skilled labour.
Over the coming year as well as the next few ones, our government, through ACOA, will continue to help our small- and medium-sized businesses meet the challenges they encounter. Another of our priorities of course, is increasing international trade. ACOA continues to work with its partners to help Canadian businesses penetrate key international markets such as the European Union, India, China, and of course, Latin America. In 2011 alone, our government helped over 600 businesses and organizations from Atlantic Canada to participate in activities which helped them penetrate international markets or increase their presence there.
As to the primary and traditional sectors, they have not been abandoned. Our government is also helping them increase their productivity and their competitiveness, all the while encouraging the growth of new strategic sectors such as aerospace and defence, life sciences, ocean technologies, information technologies, communications and energy.
We must ensure that our communities continue to diversify and expand. Our businesses must be innovative, productive and competitive. I think we all agree on these pre-existing conditions for our businesses in the Atlantic regions. Of course, we must, as I'm certain Minister Goodyear said before me, focus on research and development, marketing as well as the diversification and competitiveness of our resource and traditional industries. We must continue to promote new promising initiatives, including clean and renewable sources of energy. We have made remarkable progress in Atlantic Canada in that respect.
Furthermore, the Canadian government has committed itself to guaranteeing a loan for the Muskrat Falls project, which represents a clear and tangible commitment to work with other partners to develop renewable energy projects that will allow us to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create opportunities that will be beneficial for Atlantic Canada's residents, if not all North Americans, for generations to come.
To do so, we are determined to collaborate with our numerous partners, including of course provincial governments, to help our communities invest in the necessary economic infrastructure to attract investments, create jobs and strengthen Atlantic Canada's communities.
Let me conclude, Mr. Chairman, by telling you how convinced I am, being born and bred in Atlantic Canada, that we have an abundance of creativity, leadership, and ingenuity. There's no lack of innovative ideas and talent.
Moving forward, ACOA will continue to identify opportunities for Atlantic Canada's economic advancement and provide efficient and effective programs and services that are aligned with our government's focus on operations and deliver strong and positive results to the people of Atlantic Canada and all Canadians.