Madam Speaker, I want to share with this House something very personal, that I have not shared with anyone other than close friends and family, about an incident that occurred 30 years ago.
Thirty years ago, at the age of 16 turning 17, I decided to enrol in the Canadian Armed Forces. Along with my other brothers and sisters in arms who decided to sign on that dotted line of unlimited liability, I was prepared to lay my life down for the country that I love. I did the infantry basic training and did okay, and that summer I was deployed to Valcartier, along with another group of people in my platoon, to work and dedicate that summer to serving in the Canadian Armed Forces.
Why I did so was multifold. I wanted people to be proud of me. I wanted to serve my country. I wanted to learn some discipline that is not natural to me; it comes with difficulty and I still have not gotten there, but my effort and my heart was in it. I wanted to learn discipline and do things that I could not do outside the classroom.
That summer was a difficult summer for Canada. There were in my platoon four Mohawk brothers in arms. As everyone knows, 30 years ago the Oka crisis exploded. There was one night in Valcartier as we were all out, that word came down that the Royal 22e Régiment would deploy and put under siege their community. The next morning, they were no longer there. They were asked to make a difficult choice, choosing between the country that they would lay down their life for and their families. For them, the choice was clear.
It was a privilege for me not to have to make that choice myself. I have not thought about that day much, for a long time. However, we all know or should know what happened at Oka. We should know that no individuals should have to choose between their families, their nation and the country that they would readily lay their lives down for. We vowed that this would never happen again, and it should not happen again.
When we called on indigenous people in our hardest times, they served us. They defended us. They form statistically the highest percentage of people who serve in our armed forces. We should never forget that this relationship, for many communities, is based on alliance and loyalty.
I know that the recent events in B.C. and in various places across the country are deeply concerning to all Canadians. It is a very difficult situation for everyone, for those people who are non-indigenous but especially if they are indigenous. All of Canada is hurting and we are all hoping and working for a peaceful resolution. This is a challenging situation that is evolving by the hour, and the safety of all involved is of primary importance. We all want to get the same conclusion. There are some disagreements, some deep ones, as to the steps. We all want peace, we want to get rail traffic going again across this country and we want prosperity for all peoples of Canada.
There is time for all parties to engage in open and respectful dialogue to ensure this situation is resolved peacefully. To that end, I want to acknowledge the leaders of the NDP, the Bloc Québécois and the Green Party for their support and partnership in seeking a peaceful resolution. This work is not easy and it will require all of us working together in the immediate future and in the long term. We cannot move forward without honest and respectful dialogue, and that is why I am happy to take the opportunity to share my thoughts this evening and to take questions from members of this House.
Seeking an honest, open and respectful dialogue is essential for renewing the relationship and building a strong future for indigenous peoples and Canadians alike. The untold story that should be told today is that despite years of tarnished relationships, we all want to see peace and our relationship renewed, and to have a relationship based on the recognition of rights, respect, co-operation and partnership.
It is in this spirit of peace and co-operation that I went this past Saturday and gathered with members of the Mohawk nation along the rail tracks in Tyendinaga to discuss peace and friendship with a nation that has not felt part of this country. We pursued an open dialogue and made concerted efforts to move toward a peaceful resolution.
Modest but important progress was made through this dialogue. Parts of this conversation were very difficult, very painful and very personal. Upsetting stories were shared about this country's troubling treatment of indigenous peoples. There was an immense amount of suspicion toward my presence; fear that it was a ruse and that the police would move in. It is not every day that people are surrounded by police, and the reactions are normal. They are a peaceful people, and they reiterated it time and time again. We shared laughs, and as tradition dictates, we had a meal before the discussion. We listened to one another with openness and with a shared goal of finding a path forward.
I made a commitment to share our conversation with the Prime Minister and my colleagues, and I did so that night. Yesterday we had a more fulsome conversation at a meeting of the incident response group, which was convened by the Prime Minister in response to the urgent and considerable need to further open the dialogue and continue the dialogue we started in Tyendinaga on Saturday morning.
My colleague, the Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, also remains in communication with the Province of B.C. and hereditary leadership, with the hopes of meeting in person soon. She also had a very productive conversation with the leadership to open up that path to de-escalation. It will not be an easy one. There are many demands, many historical grievances, but there is a clear sense that there is a protocol to be observed and a pathway toward de-escalation.
We are a country built on the values of peace, order and good government. We hear it all the time. We need to make sure we remain focused on those ideals. One of the steps necessary to achieve peaceful progress in an unreconciled country is to continue that open dialogue at the very highest levels of government based on a nation-to-nation and government-to-government relationship, and that is exactly what has guided and underlined our actions over the past few days.
Unfortunately, in the case of indigenous peoples, we have too often discarded the first pillar, which is peace, for the sake of order and good government. I am someone who spent a long time in private practice. I have two law degrees and am accredited to practise in two jurisdictions. Let me say that the rule of law is very dear to me. I have spent my life and career upholding it.
I hear from the indigenous communities I serve, to which I have a fiduciary obligation that goes back before Canada to the Royal Proclamation of 1763, to uphold the honour of the Crown. Those people say too me too often that rule of law has been invoked to perpetrate historical injustices. We need only look at the examples of Louis Riel, Big Bear and Poundmaker to have some of the more poignant examples, as well as those perpetrated on a daily basis.
People have said to lock them up. Guess what, that has been tried. The level of incarceration is six times higher for the indigenous population of Canada, and in some provinces, much worse. These are very serious issues that demand our attention and have demanded it for hundreds of years, and there is no place in this discussion for rhetoric and vitriol.
The question I find myself asking time and time again as I look at my children is whether we are going to do things the way we have always done them, which has brought us to this point in our relationship, or whether we are going to take a new approach that prioritizes open dialogue built on respect, one that engages us in a true government-to-government relationship. The conversations we started on Saturday, and those my colleagues have offered to have across the country at the highest level, will help us find a more collaborative and therefore constructive way forward.
It is only through meaningful engagement with those who have felt ignored and disrespected for too long that we can find a way forward that builds peace and prosperity for all.
For almost 500 years, indigenous peoples have faced discrimination in every aspect of their lives. The Crown, at times, has prevented a true equal partnership from developing with indigenous peoples imposing, instead, a relationship based on colonial, paternalistic ways of thinking and doing.
As I mentioned in introduction, many of our relationships were based on military alliances to ensure our own sovereignty. Let me say, they stepped up when we needed them. A little over a year ago, this whole House rose to celebrate Levi Oakes and the untold story of the last Mohawk code talker. Sadly, a few months later after this lifting up that was long overdue, he passed away. He was born in Snye, Akwesasne, part of Quebec. He served in the U.S. Armed Forces.
A story that has not been told is why he did not serve Canada. He did not serve Canada because his brother was beaten up by a policeman, and he vowed never to serve in our forces. We need to think about that, when we think about the people who serve us best. Those who came back from having served overseas, arm in arm, brothers in arms, sisters in arms were not treated that way. They were discriminated against. They could not get their pensions or medical benefits. The list is long and it is painful.
Here we are today. It has been mentioned by members of the opposition and it needs to keep being mentioned that we face a historic challenge, an injustice that we keep perpetrating towards the most important things in our life, children, in this case, for indigenous peoples, their children. There is a broken child and family system where indigenous children up to the age of 14 make up 52% of kids in foster care and care, even though they represent 7.7% of all Canadian children. There are shocking rates of suicide among indigenous youth causing untold pain and hurt that will plague families and communities for generations to come. There are untenable housing conditions, where water that is unsafe to drink or even bathe in comes out of the taps.
In Lac Seul where we lifted a boil water advisory for the first time in 17 years, the kids in the room had never had clean water from their system. One of the elders I spoke to giggled with a sense of humour that we see in, and is almost unique to, indigenous communities. She said to me that now it would not itch after she took her bath.
There are communities where overcrowding and mould are far too common. There are communities that do not have reliable access to roads or health centres or even schools. That approach has left a legacy of devastation, pain and suffering, and it is unacceptable and untenable.
For hundreds of years indigenous peoples have been calling on the Canadian government to recognize and affirm their jurisdiction over their affairs, to have control and agency over their land, housing, education, governance systems, and child and family services. We have undeniable proof that self-determination is a better path to take. For example, look at the Mi’kmaq communities in Nova Scotia. In 1997, the governments of Canada and Nova Scotia signed a historic agreement with nine Mi'kmaq communities, restoring their control over their education system. The result is that now more than 90% of Mi’kmaq students graduate. It is higher than the average in most provinces.
That is what comes when Canada steps out of the way and accepts the necessity of self-governance and self-determination. This is what has to happen in every sector. This is what communities are asking for now, and have been asking for for far too long. It is what is at stake when we speak about self-determination. Self-governing indigenous peoples have better socio-economic outcomes because they know best what to do with their resources. More children finish high school. Fewer people are unemployed. Health outcomes are better. Self-determination improves the well-being and prosperity of indigenous communities, and that is something all Canadians should strive to support.
When we formed government, we took a different approach founded on partnership and co-development, built from a place of listening to indigenous leaders, elders, youth and community, working with members, and working to support the attainment of their goals based on their priorities.
It is important to highlight this while the events gripping the nation are on the front page of the newspapers. The progress, while slow, has been determined, forceful and backed up with historic amounts. Since 2016 we have invested $21 billion into the priorities of indigenous partners, and together we have made some progress. Sixty-nine schools were built or renovated. Some 265 water and waste-water infrastructure projects were completed and 88 long-term drinking water advisories were lifted. We are contributing toward the establishment of a wellness centre in Nunavut in partnership with the Government of Nunavut and Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated. We are supporting the national Inuit suicide prevention strategy and ensuring that Inuit children have access to the health, social and educational supports they need. We are working with the Métis nation to advance shared priorities such as health, post-secondary education and economic development.
However, we still have a long way to go to close the unacceptable socio-economic gaps that still exist between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples. Our government is committed to working in partnership on improving the lives of first nations children, and our track record of the past four years shows this. We have almost doubled funding to first nations child and family services agencies, from close to $677 million in 2016 to $1.2 billion in 2018-19. That funding is based on actual needs and with an emphasis on prevention.
There have been 508,000 requests for Jordan's principle approved, which ensures first nations children have the health, education and social supports they need, when and where they need them. I was in Whitefish River First Nation about three days ago, and I saw the work that Jordan's principle does for children who need it, and we are striving to ensure they get substantive equality.
We are providing predictable funding to education that is provincially comparable. We know this is essential to strengthen first nations education and improve outcomes, because indigenous peoples must have control over first nations education systems. We know when that is done indigenous graduation rates are the same, if not better, than non-indigenous graduation rates. We have launched a new funding formula for kindergarten to grade 12 education that has resulted in regional funding increases of almost 40%. The number of first nations schools offering elementary full-day kindergarten, for example, has increased by over 50%.
We have a tough road ahead of us. As I mentioned, this road will be demanding on all of us. We will have to work together very hard and listen even when the truth is hard to hear. We will have to continue discussions even when we do not agree. We will have to keep working together, looking for creative ways to move forward and finding new paths towards healing and true understanding.
We have all seen what happens when we do not work together and engage in dialogue. We end up with mistrust and confusion over who should speak on behalf of rights holders on issues like consent, as well as the rights and titles of indigenous peoples. This confusion can lead to conflict, as we are seeing now, and prevents us from moving forward together.
I realize that the challenges we face are many, but I know that the difficult road ahead of us is worthwhile. It is worthwhile for the youth in the next generation and for those who will follow. It is worthwhile for all those who will grow up knowing that together, the Crown and indigenous peoples are working hard to create a future, to improve their quality of life and to heal. We will not fail another generation of indigenous children.
I have spoken about a lot of the difficulties, a lot of the pain and a lot of the successes that are progressive, yet slow, that we have done as a government. We have a lot more to do, and we cannot discount mistakes, but we do it in good faith and in good partnership with indigenous communities.
I ask everyone in this House as they contemplate the next few days to look at their children or those that are young and are dear to them and ask themselves what they will tell them when this conflict resolves. We cannot repeat the errors of the past, and there are many to base ourselves on.
[Member spoke in Mohawk]