Mr. Chair, I wish to take this opportunity to congratulate you as you assume your important role in this House. It is well deserved for your long and very important tenure here as a member of this House and a person for whom I have deep and abiding respect.
It is with pleasure that I join in this important debate this evening. I will take this opportunity as well to thank the constituents of Central Nova for having the confidence to send me here for a fourth time.
I am also very proud of the riding that I represent in Nova Scotia that has made a storied contribution in times of war and peace. There have been individuals such as Lloyd MacDonald, who served with the Devil's Brigade from Pictou, General Jim Grant, Reg Connors, who served with the Gurkhas, and R.B. Cameron, who was also a very important and famous industrialist from rural Pictou County, and served at the Gothic Line for which he received the distinguished service award.
All of these individuals, like all the Canadians who have served overseas, have done so with tremendous sacrifice. This is something to keep very much in mind and have as a backdrop for this evening's debate.
The Prime Minister, during his recent visit to Afghanistan, clearly explained why we were there and why we must continue to be there and to be engaged. It is to protect our security by building an Afghan security and governance system. It demonstrates that we have much pride and purpose to accomplish and the presence of our soldiers there allows us to do just that.
I would like to speak in favour of Canada's important leadership role in Afghanistan. This role is important for Canadians, for Afghans and for our allies.
The events of September 11, 2001 brought home a sobering fact. We cannot continue to enjoy security and prosperity at home in the west without regard to the state of the rest of the world. Terrorism knows no boundaries. It was mentioned earlier in the remarks by my colleague across the way that Canada was hit. Canadians did die on that fateful day in New York. This is now the case that we have to look outward. Nowhere is this more true than in Afghanistan today. Security there is as important as security is here.
Canada is in Afghanistan at the request of the Afghan government and authorized by the United Nations. We are part of a multinational effort and we are there as proud contributors to the effort to rebuild that country. As they gain, so does the world.
After a series of political and diplomatic agreements, including the Bonn agreement of 2001, the Afghanistan compact agreed upon in London in January, there is a contract between Afghans and the international community. Each for their own interest have made commitments and investments in rebuilding Afghanistan.
Overwhelmingly, Canadians need to understand the importance of this mission. We have made progress. However, as the recent spate of attacks in Afghanistan demonstrates, complacency is not an option. It is important to take note that transition takes time. Capacity cannot be meaningfully developed in a few short years.
Al-Qaeda and the Taliban remain active, challenging Afghans as well as the international security.
We have undertaken certain risks to protect our national interests, show our leadership and help the Afghan people prepare for a better future. Our values are worth protecting. We can never again allow Afghanistan to become a haven for terrorists. We are taking concrete steps to change things; we are turning words into action.
And we are not alone. I recently met with my European counterparts. They too bear part of the burden. After all, Afghanistan is the largest and most important theatre of NATO operations in the world.
Canada, along with our allies, is committed to helping Afghanistan to become a stable, secure and self-sustaining democratic state. Because of boots on the ground and Canadian Forces with maple leafs as shoulder flashes, we are seeing some major progress. Canada's core values of freedom and democracy, and the rule of law and human rights, guide our engagement there and all of this happens because our soldiers are there.
These values are shared by Afghans. They have committed to it in their new constitution. The instruments to make these values real are still nascent. It is precisely because there is work to be done in these areas that Canada continues to be there.
Afghans have suffered in recent history conflict and instability, first under Soviet occupation and then Taliban oppression, leaving their country heavily militarized with little infrastructure, a human skills deficit, and a huge drug trade proliferation.
Together, with increasing Afghan leadership, much progress has been achieved and will continue in large part because of Canada's commitment and resolve. The culmination of the benchmarks first identified just over four years ago by the 2001 Bonn agreement demonstrates that Afghans are hungry for change.
The adoption of a constitution that enshrines the concepts of human rights, gender equality, ethnic plurality, and the staging of presidential, parliamentary and provincial elections are all significant progress in which Canada played an important part. We were there as observers. We made a significant financial contribution and there was a free vote. I am quick to add that women voted in that election for the first time. Young women are attending schools for the first time. Thousands of young women now have opportunities that never existed. Still, many challenges remain.
Canada has been a major contributor to democratic development in Afghanistan. Our investments have paid dividends. The two consecutive elections have demonstrated that Afghans have embraced democracy. For the provincial and parliamentary elections held in September 2005, 44% of those registered to vote were women and 6.4 million Afghans voted on election day, a testament to Afghani resolve to create a better future.
With the launch of the Afghanistan compact in February 2006, the compact, in its accompanying interim national development strategy and national drug control strategy, recognized outstanding challenges that chartered the path ahead. Canada's approach is also in line with the Afghanistan compact. Canada played an active role in shaping that compact and is committed to supporting its implementation.
Human rights and good governance feature prominently and throughout the compact. The Afghan government has pledged to recruit competent and credible professionals to its public service on the basis of merit, establish a more effective, accountable and transparent administration throughout all levels of its government, and implement measurable improvements in fighting corruption, upholding justice, the rule of law and promoting respect for human rights. Canada will help and continue to help Afghanistan realize those goals.
We have already made the promotion and protection of human rights a huge priority. We have spoken out clearly in favour of freedom of speech and freedom of religion, and we have an important role to play in helping develop Afghanistan's justice sector.
We are providing some $6 million to improve access to the justice system through legal aid and capacity building within the judiciary.
We will continue to work with our friends and allies in the international community to advance our common values and interests. Canada's role in Afghanistan has not gone unrecognized. The Prime Minister has already mentioned the appreciation conveyed by President Karzai and at the launch of the Afghanistan compact, U.S. Secretary of State Rice singled out Canada, stating: “Our friends in Canada deserve special thanks for their essential contribution”.
I spoke with some of our international partners, including the Dutch, who will take over Canadian command of the multinational brigade headquarters in southern Afghanistan. We share common values and goals.
The Dutch and the British will soon take over command of the provincial reconstruction teams in southern Afghanistan currently under Canadian command. They will continue to share this heavy burden with us and with 35 other countries working in Afghanistan.
To conclude, we are in Afghanistan to defend our national interests and we are not there alone. Afghanistan and our allies are deeply interested and invested in this cause, and it is a common cause. It is by securing Afghanistan's future that we secure our own future. That is worth the risk being taken by Canadian diplomats, military personnel and development officials. They are worthy of nothing short of our full, continued and abiding support.
That is why this government commits to them today unreservedly. We are here tonight to explain to Canadians why we are there, why the mission will continue, and includes the reasons that we are discussing here this evening. Our government has every confidence that the men and women of our armed forces deserve this unreserved respect.