Madam Speaker, it is a great pleasure to speak in this debate. I hail from a riding that is largely dominated by aboriginal parties, the Innu, the Inuit and the Métis of Labrador.
It is a genuine honour and privilege for me to rise in the House to speak to this legislation. Bill C-31 is no ordinary piece of legislation. The bill puts into effect the Tlicho land claims and self-government agreement. This is an historic step for the Tlicho people of the Northwest Territories and a milestone in the history of aboriginal peoples in Canada.
The word milestone is entirely appropriate, for the Tlicho land claims and self-government agreement represents the accumulation of a long journey, one that has demanded patience, determination and conviction.
As this journey has now reached the House of Commons, I would like to offer my congratulations to the Tlicho people for achieving this momentous agreement. I am proud to declare my support for the agreement and for Bill C-31.
The benefits of aboriginal self-government are many. The Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development has made this fact abundantly clear on numerous occasions. In the time allocated to me today, I would like to touch on just one of these benefits: strengthening economic development in aboriginal communities.
This is an area of which I am deeply concerned. I am very proud to see our aboriginal peoples move forward and to see the Tlicho people, as well as the aboriginal people that I represent, starting to do so very well in economic development.
The question is, why does the promise of economic development for the Tlicho people deserve special attention? As the House will recall, the government made a plea in the recent Speech from the Throne to foster such opportunities for aboriginal communities, to see aboriginal peoples participate fully in national life on the basis of historic rights and agreements, with greater economic self-reliance and improved quality of life.
The land claims and self-government agreement signed by the Government of Canada, the Government of the Northwest Territories and the Tlicho people helps fulfill that commitment by recognizing the jurisdiction of the Tlicho people over their land, resources, language and culture.
Economic growth can occur only when people have their freedom to cultivate it. Most Canadians take this truth to be self-evident but I was struck by a comment made by the Tlicho elder, Mary Ann Jermemick, upon the signing of the Tlicho agreement last August. She said:
We were always told what to do and what we couldn't do. We could have somebody doing mining…right next to our house and we have nothing to say about it. Now at least we have some say about what's going on in our community and our land.
I think that is a very important statement and one that speaks well of aboriginal people throughout Canada and a statement that could be used by almost any aboriginal person. These are profound words spoken by a wise elder. With this agreement, the Tlicho people will now have the freedom to cultivate economic development. They will possess the authority to not only identify new and important opportunities but also to promptly and decisively pursue them.
How will they accomplish these worthy goals? Under the Tlicho land claims and self-government agreement, the Tlicho people will gain additional governance and administrative tools to strengthen their economy. Using these levers of prosperity, the Tlicho expect to create an entrepreneurial climate that will encourage investment and pave the way for new jobs paying good wages. Through the land, resource and financial benefits they receive from the agreement, the Tlicho will be in a better position to undertake new business ventures and forge profitable partnerships.
As new economic ventures get underway, other opportunities are sure to follow. With these exciting new possibilities on the horizon, it is important to remember that the Tlicho people are no strangers to entrepreneurship. In fact, they have provided an excellent example to other groups, aboriginal and non-aboriginal alike, of the benefits of hard work, the strength of partnership, and the value of innovative thinking.
The Tlicho people were the first aboriginal group in the Northwest Territories to develop their own hydroelectric project. Developed in the 1990s, the Snare Cascades hydroelectric project was a joint venture with the Northwest Territories Power Corporation and represented the largest economic project undertaken by the Tlicho. A vital component of the regional power grid, the Snare Cascades project now generates more than four megawatts and supplies 7% of the territory's power. Labrador could probably help a bit because there are 5,500 in Great Churchill Falls.
The Tlicho also built, independent of any government funding, an airport in the aboriginal community of Rae-Edzo. The airport, which enables airlines to provide direct flights to Edmonton and Yellowknife, is sure to bolster a variety of industries in the region as traffic steadily increases.
The Tlicho currently partner with some of Canada's largest engineering companies, including Procon and SNC-Lavalin. The Tlicho nation is party to impact and benefits agreements with Diavik and Ekati, two prominent diamond mining companies in the region. Through these accords, the Tlicho have negotiated for guaranteed training and employment at both mines, enhancing the chances for increased employment and improved standards of living for the Tlicho well into the future.
It is no secret that the mining industry is the leading employer of aboriginal people in the Northwest Territories. In the early 1990s, aboriginal people accounted for only 10% of full time mining jobs in the north. Direct employment since then has tripled to about 30% largely due to the aboriginal hiring and training initiatives at the two diamond mines.
In fact, at the end of 2001, 683 aboriginal employees, or 30% of the operation's workforce, worked for the Ekati mine or its contractors. At the end of 2002, 36 of Diavik's operating employees were aboriginal. Diavik anticipates that aboriginal workers will account for at least 40% of the company's northern workforce when the mine reaches full capacity.
The mine is well on its way to reaching this figure following a recent agreement signed between Diavik and I&D Management Services, a consortium of aboriginal groups. Under this agreement, I&D provides 100 employees to the mine, of whom half are aboriginal. These workers operate many of the ore haul trucks, excavators, dozers and other heavy equipment essential to the mine's operations.
A new school, for instance, now provides Tlicho youth with a broader range of career and lifestyle options than those enjoyed by previous generations. These increased opportunities are encouraging many more students to remain in school and graduate. Dropout rates have plummeted. Many young people are now going on to post-secondary education, and in June 2006 the school will graduate its first university bound students. That is a very important milestone.
The spirit of entrepreneurship is also reflected in the rapid growth of the local business community. Today, more than 200 aboriginal owned businesses in the region, with annual revenues in excess of $100 million, are employing some 1,000 aboriginal people. These figures represent unprecedented growth in aboriginal entrepreneurship in Canada's north.
Here is more evidence of this growth. In 2001, Ekati spent $105 million of its $400 million operations support budget with aboriginal owned firms, a 62% increase over the previous year. At Diavik, by the end of 2001, the company had $726 million in contracts with northern companies, including $500 million with aboriginal joint venture firms.
These firms provide a variety of support services to the mines, namely, pit haul operations, explosives manufacturing, camp management and food services, employee recruiting, construction, engineering, and environmental management. Mining companies are fast recognizing that contract aboriginal firms in the region makes, above all else, excellent business sense.
I believe that I have made it clear that the spirit of entrepreneurship is alive and well among the Tlicho people. I have no doubt that the land claims and self-government agreement will help bolster the regional economy even further.
The agreement gives the Tlicho people greater and more immediate decision making powers to capitalize on business relationships and expand their entrepreneurial horizons. As those horizons expand, the range of work experience available to the Tlicho will continue to broaden. And it is precisely that breadth of experience that will foster ongoing economic development and innovation.
In this way the Tlicho agreement benefits all Canadians, by providing a model of economic self-determination that others might emulate, and by strengthening the central role played by an aboriginal community within a broader regional economy.
I want to offer my personal congratulations again. This agreement and the people represented in this agreement rivals the kind of support and the kind of development I see in my own riding of Labrador among aboriginal peoples. I wish to offer my sincere congratulations.
It is for these reasons, and many others, that I urge all members to lend their support to this historic piece of legislation, to see its passing, and to ensure that the economic promise of the Tlicho land claims and self-government agreement is made real.