Mr. Speaker, I am extremely pleased to speak in support of this historic bill, Bill C-61, Anishinabek Nation Education Agreement Act. It is a momentous occasion, and I want to offer my sincere congratulations to all those who have given so much time and energy in seeing this through.
As was mentioned, negotiations began in 1993 and concluded in 2015, at the end of the Conservative government's last term. The agreement was signed August 16, 2017. It truly has been created through a bipartisan process.
However, it is important to note that it has taken much too long. As we move to other agreements in the future, whether it be education or health, I hope we have a much more nimble process to get us to a final conclusion. The people who are here in the gallery listening today would agree that 20 years is much too long for this kind of important agreement to move forward.
We all recognize the importance of education. I want to share some of Roberta Jamieson's words:
Indigenous peoples are the fastest-growing demographic group in Canada. They have the potential to make a strong contribution to Canada's economic well-being. But if that is to happen, we must deal with the gap between the well-being of indigenous and non-indigenous people in Canada. That requires understanding the role education plays in closing that gap—and the action required to make that happen. The economic advantages of “closing the gap” far outweigh the costs.
As Matthew Calver of the Centre for the Study of Living Standards notes:
The benefits of education extend far beyond labour market performance...[It] is also associated with better health, reduced crime, political engagement and better financial decisions.
Ms. Jamieson went on to say:
We must build awareness that education is more than just the ABCs—it is the means of restoring cultural loss by strengthening identity, language, culture, and indigenous peoples' history. Our children require an education that recognizes and respects our values and our science, and is intended to contribute to the rebuilding of nations. When our youth realize they have reason for a strong affirming sense of identity, when they believe they are persons of value, knowing they are part of a positive change being woven into the history of Canada, they will respond by realizing that they have talent, potential, intelligence, and something special to offer the world.
As the minister described the signing agreement, and seeing the two youths with the sweatshirts, that just speaks to those words so clearly.
Hopefully, this agreement is going to do all that for these communities. As has been mentioned, 23 of the 39 Anishinabek First Nations have signed on, and of course the remaining communities have an option to sign on in the future if they want to. It recognizes the control over education on reserve from junior kindergarten to grade 12 in the 23 participating first nations.
It is an enormous agreement. There are over 25,000 students, of which approximately 2,000 currently attend band-operated schools. The 39 first nations in Anishinabek Nation are spread across much of Ontario, from Thunder Bay to Pembroke to Sarnia. For those of us who come from different provinces, it is important to really understand the scope of the massive area this is going to include. As has been mentioned, this is the first self-government agreement in Ontario.
The agreement comes with a number of pieces. It has an education fiscal transfer agreement, which is going to be updated and renewed every five fiscal years, the first of which the previous Conservative government signed on July 8, 2015. It provides stable, predictable, and flexible funding to ensure the school board can deliver quality education to the same standards as the province of Ontario.
It is important to note we are moving in the right direction. We still have a long way to go. The 2016 census revealed some positive steps forward in terms of completion rates. I do not think that we have caught up to where we need to be, but there was a movement, very importantly, in the right direction, and agreements such as this will further close the gap.
The minister will not be surprised to hear that I am pleased to see there is clear language around the financial transparency of each first nation and the school board, which will be fully accountable to the band members for the spending to ensure the money will go where it is needed most. Having that financial transparency and accountability in these communities will be a very important measurement. It will include audited statements, which will be made available to the membership.
My children were raised in a small rural community with a small high school. At the time, rural broadband was not available. I remember looking at options, but they just were not available. However, now with broadband being widely available, there is an ability for our budding doctors to take physics, or someone who wants to be an engineer to take calculus, which are typically opportunities that are not available in small rural communities and some of our first nation communities.
Hopefully, in the future, when we have signed agreements, they will include a component where we commit to bring into these communities high-speed broadband, which will allow even greater opportunity for the students to have flexibility and an expanded scope.
The minister also talked about how many of the students could not stay in their communities and had to move on in terms of high school. Again, this would allow greater flexibility in terms of choices, and students could spend more time in their home communities and get a full and robust education. If we are looking at agreements, this should be something that requires a significant discussion.
In closing, this is a monumental achievement. My sincerest congratulations go to the people who have worked so hard on it. Jurisdiction over their primary, elementary, and secondary education will be very important, as well as the ability to deliver a culturally-relevant curriculum every day. Ultimately, as these schools learn by doing and succeed, perhaps we will have lessons that we can learn from for some of our more traditional schools in larger centres.
I remember visiting a day care in T’it’q’et, a small community, that welcomed members from the nearby off-reserve community to attend. I remember how enriching it was for the children that lived in Lillooet to go to that particular day care. They also benefited from the cultural programming that was part of this particular day care. Therefore, I see that there is going to be opportunity in the future for everyone to be a little better.
Again, I am pleased to support the bill and congratulations to all.