Mr. Speaker, thank you for the opportunity to address the motion brought forward by the hon. member for Nanaimo—Cowichan.
To begin, I would like to reiterate our government's commitment to working with all of our partners. I truly believe that the best way to achieve our common goal of creating healthy, prosperous and self-sufficient aboriginal communities is by working together.
That is why, since I was appointed Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, my priority has been to meet as many aboriginal leaders, youth and community members as possible. I have met with aboriginal leaders, I have organized round tables with aboriginal youth, and I have participated in events across the country. Naturally, I intend to continue to do so.
One common refrain that I have heard across the country while visiting aboriginal communities, leaders, stakeholders, and youth is that aboriginal people want greater access to education and economic opportunities. These calls are being answered by this government's initiatives. For example, over the last several years, our government has taken concrete steps to address specific issues, such as education, economic development, and access to safe drinking water.
In recent years we have negotiated and implemented initiatives in collaboration with first nations, provinces and aboriginal organizations. These initiatives have led to progress in a number of areas to address the barriers to social and economic participation, which unfortunately are currently faced by so many first nation people.
In the last week alone, we have signed an historic memorandum of understanding on first nation education with the Province of Ontario and the Nishnawbe Aski Nation that is focused on building capacity and attaining achievement levels comparable to the general student population in Ontario.
In British Columbia, we have also signed the first Yale First Nation final agreement, bringing us one step closer toward achieving a treaty for Yale First Nation that would provide certainty about ownership of lands but also create other new economic opportunities for that community.
I was in British Columbia last week, where I met the first nation leadership, and I have committed, on behalf of the Government of Canada, to working with first nations and first nation partners on the renewal of the comprehensive claims policy, in order to expedite the resolution of claims in a manner that is fair and would enable economic development for first nations.
Our strategy has been to focus on finding real solutions to specific obstacles, working together with first nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. This steady step-by-step approach to reform is practical, realistic and effective. It is part of a larger strategy that would include targeted investments and partnerships, announcements to programs, and legislative initiatives. This strategy would also include immediate and collaborative action on treaty implementation and governance.
It is easy to get tired of lofty rhetoric and cumbersome processes. We want results that make a real difference while progress is being made. When we look over the situation everywhere in the country, we know and we acknowledge that there is much more work to be done and that it requires commitment and co-operation on all sides.
For example, when I met with first nations leaders last week to discuss improvements to Canada's comprehensive claims policy, we shared our concerns about the pace at which claims are being settled.
The fact is that a comprehensive claims policy has not been updated since 1993. Our government's commitment to renewing the policy will be done to better reflect the current landscape. Things have changed in 20 years.
We must take into account legal developments, the practical experience of first nations and the Government of Canada in reaching agreements, as well as other approaches to addressing aboriginal rights.
I committed to working with first nation partners, with the support of the Assembly of First Nations, on the renewal of the comprehensive claims policy to expedite the resolution of claims in a manner that is fair and enables economic development for first nations.
We all agreed that the Senior Oversight Committee the Prime Minister formed earlier this year will oversee progress on this work and will provide advice to the government on a renewed policy.
The negotiation policies must advance certainty, expeditious resolution and self-sufficiency, as the Prime Minister committed to early last year in the Crown—first nations gathering outcome statement.
Our government is committed to continue working with aboriginal partners across the country to achieve results at negotiation tables for the benefit of first nations and all Canadians. We believe the best way to achieve progress on outstanding issues is through joint work and dialogue. Successful negotiations lead to solutions that balance the rights of all concerned, promote greater self-sufficiency, certainty, accountability and transparency, and lead to economic opportunities for aboriginal communities, thus achieving this great objective of reconciliation.
However, partnership is the key word. The successful implementation of land claim and self-government agreements is the shared responsibility with all parties to the treaty. Our government remains committed to working with our treaty partners to strengthen implementation processes and promote the objectives of modern treaties. In fact, our government has listened and developed tools and structures to support a consistent federal approach to implementing modern treaties.
As a matter of fact, this morning I was with senior officials of my department reviewing the efforts that are being made to ensure a consistent federal approach to implementing modern treaties. I wish to note that these efforts have been recognized. The Office of the Auditor General, in June 2011, noted Canada's progress in monitoring and reporting treaty obligations, the federal coordination of treaty responsibilities and the whole of government's awareness of treaty obligations.
At last year's historic Crown-first nations gathering, we reiterated our commitment to renewing and deepening the relationship with our first nations partners through ongoing dialogue and making real measurable progress to achieve our shared goal of healthier, more self-sufficient first nations communities.
Canada and many first nations have differences of opinion on historic treaties, their content and their implementation, and those differences will not be settled overnight. However, we are doing everything we can to settle those differences together with our partners in a way that benefits everyone.
In September 2012, our government announced plans to work with its partners on a new approach to treaty and self-government negotiations in regions of Canada where no treaty exists. The current process allows negotiations to carry on for years, with no foreseeable end, creating financial liabilities for aboriginal communities and impeding economic development.
We are promoting—and I think the provinces, aboriginal groups and the private sector share this sentiment—a more efficient process in order to expedite treaty and self-government negotiations. Through this new process we are focusing our energies and resources on those negotiating tables with the greatest potential for success. This is a results-based method, not a process-driven one.
We will work with aboriginal groups and the provinces and territories to implement this new approach. At the same time, we are always prepared to negotiate with willing partners in order to obtain agreements that reflect the particular interests, as I mentioned earlier, most definitely of the First Nations, but also of all other Canadians. In fact, these agreements have significant benefits. I would like to give a few examples.
In northern Quebec, the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement and the Northeastern Quebec Agreement have resulted in the creation of businesses owned by the Inuit, Cree and Naskapi, and businesses jointly owned with the private sector in such sectors as airlines, construction, clothing, communications, software, mining, shipping, tourism, crafts, fishing and the biosciences.
In the Northwest Territories, the Tlicho First Nation has established entities to undertake economic activities in its region and to negotiate agreements that will benefit its people and their communities. In British Columbia, the Westbank First Nation, for example, is successfully developing its land, which in turn provides support for essential programs.
As members can see, the benefits of settling comprehensive claims are immense, and we need more such agreements.
The time for action is now, as I said this week in the House. Negotiated agreements help to strengthen aboriginal communities and create new business, new investment and new job opportunities. We are working with our partners to achieve more treaties in less time so that these communities can begin to unlock economic opportunities and see results. Increasing aboriginal participation in the economy is without doubt the most effective way to improve the socio-economic conditions of aboriginal people in Canada. It is also vital to Canada's future economic prosperity. Resolving treaties quickly is one more way this will come to pass.
I want the record to be clear: it was our government that introduced legislation to streamline and improve the process for resolving specific claims, so to the prophets of doom and gloom on the other side who see nothing but darkness in their aspirations, it seems to me, in regard to these issues, I refer to that process for resolving specific claims.
In the past—and all interested Canadians were witness to this—claims dragged on for many years, but the reform this government has brought forward has changed the situation and brought about real progress.
I am proud of how our government has tackled this important issue. We have come a long way from the state we were in when we first came to government after 13 years of Liberal rule. We have since cleared up a backlog of 541 claims at the assessment stage, doubling the number of claims in negotiations across the country, and we have settled over 93 specific claims since coming to government.
As a matter of fact, in my home riding of Madawaska—Restigouche we have settled a specific claim of the Madawaska Maliseet First Nation. That settlement has brought about a real change in that community because of the leadership of the chief and council and also because of the active participation of the members of that community.
Claim settlements lead to new opportunities for communities and to economic development that brings long-term benefits not only to first nations members but to Canada as a whole. These investments in turn can generate spinoff economic benefits and the potential for new business partnerships with neighbouring communities, and that is a plus for all of Canada.
Progress on specific claims is just one more way our government has demonstrated its commitment to making progress in accelerating claim resolution and treaty implementation. I have said this before and I will repeat it now: through willing partnerships, negotiations will run more smoothly, leading to more negotiated treaties and self-government agreements. We are taking action and seeing results.
Furthermore, at their latest meeting on January 11, the government and the chiefs of the First Nations expressed their will to continue the conversation about accelerating comprehensive claims and treaty implementation.
The government has heard the appeals from people across the country, who are calling on us to take the steps needed to make progress on both historical and modern treaties. That is exactly what we are doing.
I will close by saying that it is clear that the government's intent and actions are the opposite of what the opposition motion is claiming. For that reason, we are determined to strongly oppose the motion.