Mr. Speaker, I rise today to support Bill C-31, the Tlicho land claims and self-government act. While my hon. colleagues have addressed specific aspects of the bill, I would like to take a broader view and situate the bill in a northern context.
I am convinced that Bill C-31 will have a significant and overwhelmingly positive impact on Canada's north. Unprecedented prosperity is already underway in the north and for the first time aboriginal people are participating as full partners. There is no doubt in my mind that these trends are definitely linked. I am also convinced that Canada's long term prosperity depends upon continuing to foster growth in the northern economy. To ensure that this growth benefits all Canadians, northerners must be directly involved.
The Tlicho seek to increase their participation in the economy. Through Bill C-31, the House has the power to grant them their wish and advance Canadian prosperity. Simply put, the legislation before us today gives the Tlicho people the legal status, tools and resources they need to access an equitable share of northern prosperity. The legislation would create the democratic institutions of local government which would ensure that future generations can protect Tlicho culture and safeguard traditional lands.
This legislation has arrived at a favourable time in the history of the north. Allow me to explain by citing a few facts. Canada will soon become the world's third largest producer of diamonds, thanks to the successful mining operations in the Northwest Territories. This success is made sweeter by the partnerships struck between first nations and the mining companies.
One of the first agreements was struck between the Tlicho and Ekati. Other deals involve aboriginal trucking and facilities companies. As a result of these agreements, northern communities are benefiting significantly from the diamond projects. In 2002, aboriginals accounted for more than 30% of the workforces at Ekati and Diavik.
A study conducted in 2003 by the Northwest Territories and Nunavut Chamber of Mines estimated that at least 200 aboriginal businesses now operate in the mining sector. These businesses generate revenues in excess of $500 million per year. Similar projects are underway across the north: to mine nickel near Voisey's Bay, Labrador, and to extract and develop oil sands in Alberta.
All of these projects will generate substantial profits for investors and deliver significant benefits for first nations and northern communities. I am convinced that partnering with aboriginal organizations in these projects is key to Canada's long term prosperity.
My belief is based on two concurrent facts. First, the natural resources of the north are vast and relatively untapped and, second, many aboriginal communities concentrated in the north are keen to participate as equal partners in the development of these resources. However, many of these communities face significant barriers. Ownership of resources and legal status are often in doubt, forcing potential investors to take their money elsewhere.
The Government of Canada has an important role to play to ensure that the vast economic potential of the north is realized in a sustainable and inclusive way. By devolving certain powers to the territories, for example, we help ensure that decisions about resource development are made by the people most affected. By negotiating land claims and self-government agreements, for instance, we help ensure that aboriginal communities can access resources and develop their economies. We help create the conditions that attract other partners.
Bill C-31 is a case in point. The centrepiece of the legislation is the Tlicho agreement, a tripartite agreement negotiated during the past decade by Canada, the Northwest Territories and the Tlicho. While several clauses of the agreement are complex, their overall effect is relatively simple: the Tlicho will become a self-governing entity with the tools to enable it to raise capital and develop infrastructure.
Under Bill C-31, the Tlicho will have the authority to collect taxes, levy resource royalties, license businesses and manage their lands and resources. The Indian Act will no longer apply. The Tlicho will still be subject to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and all federal laws of general application, including the Criminal Code.
The Tlicho have clearly demonstrated that they are ready to exercise these powers wisely. Although comprised of only a few thousand members, the Tlicho manage their own schools and a long term care facility. They have built and now successfully operate an airport. They have negotiated social service delivery agreements with the government of the Northwest Territories.
The Tlicho are ready, willing and able to play a larger role in the northern economy. We must ensure that the Tlicho have every opportunity to succeed in this role.
Modern land claims agreements have provided aboriginal people with the means to become partners in the economic development of their regions. Makivik Corporation, which represents the Inuit of northern Quebec, concluded a land claim agreement in 1976. They have supported and developed the traditional economy of their communities while at the same time becoming major partners in the broader economy. They own a major airline and a construction company and are partners in northern shipping ventures and commercial fisheries.
Overall, these agreements provide aboriginal groups with governance, economic tools and land and resource benefits, which are contributing to their self-reliance, cultural well-being and successful participation in the broader economy.
I believe that the success of partnerships between private sector companies and aboriginal groups has forever altered the business climate in the north. Diamond mines in the Northwest Territories demonstrate the advantage of this new operating environment.
Diavik and BHP Billiton have adopted a stewardship approach that demonstrates tremendous respect, both for the environment and for local communities. Diavik, for instance, signed an impact and benefits agreement with the Tlicho before the company opened the Ekati mine.
Today the majority of the mine's workforce is comprised of northerners and nearly 50% are aboriginal. The mine buys 70% of the goods and services it needs from suppliers based in the Northwest Territories. Tlicho Logistics, a company created to provide services to Ekati, employs more than 106 aboriginals.
The partnerships with diamond companies enable first nations to realize community goals. By taking advantage of training opportunities, residents are acquiring the skills they need to develop and manage their own businesses. As a result, young people in the north can look forward to a more prosperous future. As a result, the number of Tlicho people enrolled in post-secondary studies has increased sixfold in the past four years.
The mining companies also benefit by tapping the knowledge of the people most familiar with the fragile environment of the north. In addition, the people of Canada benefit as strengthened aboriginal communities contribute socially, economically and culturally.
I believe that the Government of Canada must encourage businesses in northern communities to form respectful, mutually beneficial partnerships. Clearly this approach will stimulate new levels of economic activity in the north and produce tremendous advantages for all Canadians.
This House has an important role to play in ensuring that these advantages are realized. By adopting Bill C-31, we can support the considerable efforts of the Tlicho to contribute to Canada's economy. I urge hon. members to grant this legislation swift passage.