Mr. Chair, I will be giving my 10-minute remarks and then opening up to questions.
I stand today with an overwhelming sense of privilege, the privilege of being elected as a representative of the people of Vancouver South, the privilege of being the Minister of National Defence, and the privilege of assisting the men and women of the Canadian Armed Forces in the outstanding work that they do.
I approach tonight's proceedings with the feeling of humility. Appearing before this committee of the whole is not only an opportunity to engage productively with members from all parties but also to further our government's commitment to openness and transparency. Open dialogue with members has been among my priorities since taking office. Accessibility that strengthens the democratic process is the goal.
Among my first orders of business as minister was restoring parliamentary access to Canadian Armed Forces' establishments and ensuring MPs can visit freely with the approval of the base commander alone, because we welcome their visits. In the past, this required ministerial approval for every single member of Parliament's visit.
I know that all parliamentarians have the best interests of our forces at heart. We may have different ideas about how we procure the equipment they need or where and when to deploy our troops, but I do not doubt the broad all-party support for our men and women in service.
For that reason, I made it part of our standard practice to host MPs for briefings, to make courtesy calls for major announcements, and to invite fellow members to accompany me on international trips, like my recent one to Poland and Ukraine. However, regrettably, the timing did not allow that to happen. In doing so, I hope to pave the way for opposition members to offer an effective critique of our work.
I am humbled by the important work we will do tonight, but I also stand before members with the confidence of my grasp of the issues, confidence born from having served as a member of the Canadian Armed Forces for 26 years and from the knowledge that everything I know and instruct my department to do is for the benefit of our service members and of Canada.
Much has been accomplished in the last six months. Our sailors, our soldiers, our airwomen and men, have been engaged in some of our government's most important initiatives. Most recently, the forces contributed to the massive efforts to respond to the disaster brought about by the devastating fires in Fort McMurray, Alberta. Our contribution of assistance to local first responders included the provision of five helicopters for assistance with evacuations and the transportation of nearly 125,000 pounds of humanitarian aid.
Little has made me prouder since becoming Minister of National Defence than when we did the whole-of-government effort of welcoming 25,000 Syrian refugees to our country. About 290 service personnel were deployed to Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan to process applications, assist with medical screening, provide logistical support, and airlift refugees to Canada, their new home. Eight government departments worked together in support of this noble effort, but the truth is that it was their job. The people who really deserve the recognition are the Canadians who welcomed their new neighbours to this country with a generous spirit. Thousands have donated clothing, household items, and money, so that refugees could begin new lives in comfort and with dignity.
While Canadians asked for nothing in return, their generosity is paying dividends, bringing us full circle. As I noted just last week, stories emerged about Syrian refugees leading community initiatives to offer clothing, household items, and money, so that the people of Fort McMurray could have comfort and dignity, as well.
That is a “best of Canada” model that could benefit the world. That is why our government is committed to strengthening relationships and engaging meaningfully with partners and allies around the world, and I believe we are well on our way.
Since taking office, I travelled extensively at home and abroad to ensure that Canada is engaged internationally in the most effective ways possible. Not surprisingly, refocusing Operation Impact, Canada's contribution to coalition efforts to degrade and defeat ISIL, was among one of my top priorities.
My first order of business was to undertake a thorough analysis of the situation on the ground. I travelled to the region twice to consult with allies and partners, as well as with our troops. I met with my American, British, and Iraqi counterparts, and discussed the progress we were making in the areas that needed reinforcement.
Once we identified the most meaningful contribution for Canada, my next order of business was to give an update to our coalition partners on the plan to refocus our efforts. In support of that goal, I travelled to Brussels, where I met with several of my European counterparts, as well as U.S. Secretary of Defense Carter.
Canada's plan to increase our troop contribution, enhance our intelligence contribution, and bolster the Iraqis' capacity to eliminate ISIL themselves was embraced without hesitation. In fact, President Obama recently said:
Canada is an extraordinarily valued member of the global coalition fighting ISIL, tripling its personnel to help train and advise forces in Iraq, stepping up its intelligence efforts in the region, and providing critical humanitarian support.
These reactions to Canada's refocused missions are a testament to the confidence our allies have in the Canadian Armed Forces' ability to contribute meaningfully to the work of the global coalition.
It is tempting to bask in the accomplishment of our men and women in uniform, but the measure of my worth as defence minister is what my department does in support of our troops as they accomplish their mission. For that reason, my mandate moving forward is very clear. It is to support our men and women.
My department's work in the coming months and years will further efforts toward three commitments: taking care of our military members; giving them the right tools to do their jobs; and making sure that their work reflects our national ambitions.
In service of these goals, we are actively engaged in efforts to improve the process of transitioning from military to civilian life. We are facing one of the most troubling problems: the suicide rate within the forces. With an unshakeable determination, we offer hope and assistance to our members who feel that none exists.
We are tackling the issues of sexual misconduct and harassment in the military with resolve. The chief of the defence staff launched Operation Honour in order to fundamentally change the aspects of the forces culture that would have some members disregard the rights and well-being of others.
I have recently travelled to several bases, including Esquimalt, Valcartier, and Edmonton, and I can see that changes are happening. We will remain vigilant about these issues as they are critical to the morale and well-being of our troops everywhere.
On the issue of procurement, we acknowledge that there is a lot to be done. We have set ambitious goals. We will maintain current defence spending and plan increases. We have made this promise as part of our plan to implement the national shipbuilding strategy, and launch an open and transparent process to replace our CF-18s. We will address the short-term capability gaps, as we have with the interim oil tankers.
Finally, we are engaging in consultation with Canadians to develop a defence policy, one which ensures that the Canadian Armed Forces have what they need to confront the new threats and challenges in the years ahead. I will be focused on my responsibility for the Communications Security Establishment in Canada, which is also a part of my responsibility.
Tonight, let me close with a call to action for all Canadians, including the members of this House, to work with us, take part in the defence review process, and help pave the path toward a modern Canadian military that defends Canada and engages the world in a truly Canadian way.