Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
I am pleased to be here, although I must admit I'm a little nervous today, given that I'm the only person at the table with a nameplate scratched on a piece of paper in ink. I'm a little nervous about what that might mean, but we're just going to plow ahead and hope for the best. I don't know if there's any significance to it.
Perhaps, for the sake of time, I'll let my officials introduce themselves in their round, if you will, and this way we'll get on with this quickly.
I am pleased, obviously, to be back and to appear before this committee to discuss part B of the 2007-2008 supplementary estimates. I want to talk about the place of the estimates and the other resources in the supply cycle in this government's larger plan to improve quality of life for aboriginal people and northerners, and to move towards a new relationship based on partnership and mutual respect.
It's always been my opinion—our government's opinion—that aboriginal people and communities need pragmatic, doable projects that can improve their quality of life, and not simply empty promises. That's why we're moving ahead the way we are. The government is working with leaders and making real strides and delivering results for first nations, Inuit, and Métis.
With the amounts included in supplementary estimates (B), my department's appropriations for fiscal year 2007-2008 total $7.4 billion.
Our government is committed to working with all stakeholders—provincial and territorial governments and First Nations groups—to bring true and lasting change to aboriginal and northern peoples and communities. The funds committed in the supplementary estimates will allow us to embark on this course.
An outstanding example of this is the agreement reached between the James Bay Cree and the Government of Canada, which I recently had the honour of signing and which represents the largest investment in the estimates now before you: $1.1 billion is now allotted.
This is a vitally important agreement. It will empower the Cree to continue developing the local economy; it will enable them to provide important social services; and it will open the door to formal discussions with the federal government and the Province of Quebec on self-government.
But most of all, Mr. Chairman, it is an agreement that establishes a new relationship between the Cree and the Government of Canada and looks forward to a hopeful and promising future. It was a pleasure and an honour to be there for that ceremony.
The supplementary estimates will also provide funding to other critical areas, assistance with fuel and health and safety pressures, and investments for the communities of Pikangikum and Kashechewan.
The main estimates, the first stage of the supply cycle for 2008-2009, were tabled in the House last Thursday, and although there is a small reduction in the main estimates for next fiscal year, it's important to remember that these do not include resources that will be acquired through the supplementary estimates later in the fiscal cycle.
In addition to our department's funding through the main and supplementary estimates, Budget 2008, tabled in the House last Tuesday, contains vital resources that will enable other departments across government to continue the impressive progress that has already been made under the leadership of the Conservative government.
I thank the honourable members for their support of that budget.
A significant element of this budget concerns Canada's north. Our government's northern strategy is focused on strengthening Canada's sovereignty, promoting economic and social development, protecting our environmental heritage, and improving and devolving governance so that northerners have greater control over their destinies.
By statute, as well as by virtue of the mandate given to me by the Prime Minister to coordinate the government-wide northern strategy, I'm pleased to report that with Budget 2008 we are implementing important new measures that will protect Canada's sovereignty and create more economic opportunities in the north.
For instance, the budget provides $720 million for a new icebreaker to replace the aging Louis S. St-Laurent, which will be decommissioned in about nine years' time.
There are also resources for important geological mapping to help unlock the natural resource potential of the north; for important mapping of the seabed under the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans, so that Canada can continue to claim title to the lands and waters that are rightfully ours; and for the construction and management of a commercial fisheries harbour in Pangnirtung, Nunavut, which will create new jobs and support the growth of the commercial fishery along eastern Baffin Island.
Budget 2008 measures don't stop there. We are increasing the maximum daily residency deduction to further assist in drawing skilled labour to northern and isolated communities; we are extending the mineral exploration tax credit until the end of March 2009; and we are dedicating $80 million per year to Canada's three university granting councils for research in support of industrial innovation, health priorities, and social and economic development in the north.
The 2008 budget also commits resources that will have direct positive effects on the lives of aboriginal people living both north and south of the 60th parallel. For example, the budget sets aside $147 million over two years for the improvement of First Nations and Inuit health.
Furthermore, we announced an investment of $330 million over two years to improve access to safe drinking water in first nations communities. We've already made significant progress in this area and we're determined to do even more. We've lowered the number of high-risk drinking water systems in first nations communities from what we inherited when we took office, which was 193 communities that were high risk, to 85 at this time, and we're pushing forward to finish the task.
In January, I was in Nipissing First Nation near North Bay, Ontario, to announce our latest progress report on water. I was very pleased to note that in 2006, 21 communities were identified as priorities with both a high-risk system and a drinking water advisory, and now, thanks to our government's working closely with first nations, only six communities remain on that list.
Budget 2008 also delivers resources for the promotion of prevention-based models for child and family services on-reserve, and $70 million over two years to improve first nations education outcomes through enhanced accountability and by encouraging integration with provincial systems. We know that only through strong, stable families and quality education can the future of first nations children be truly secure.
Yesterday I was pleased to be involved in two important announcements that promote that kind of stability and security. First, Bill , an act respecting family homes situated on first nation reserves and matrimonial interests or rights in or to structures and lands situated on those reserves, was introduced in the House. In 2008, it is unacceptable that couples living on-reserve don't have access to the same laws as other Canadians to guide them in determining how they will divide their matrimonial real property. With Bill C-47, this government is advancing a real, practical solution to this intolerable situation.
Second, we announced that five new shelters will be built to help address violence against first nations women and their families. We also recognize the importance of economic development to building strong families and a better quality of life. Here again, Budget 2008 provides the resources to help increase aboriginal participation in the Canadian economy, and $70 million will be dedicated over the next two years to a new aboriginal economic development framework. This will include measures that will assist aboriginal individuals and communities to participate more fully in the economy in all parts of Canada, including the north.
Settled land claims are another important means of spurring economic development. I particularly want to note that I am looking forward to the passage of Bill , an act to establish the Specific Claims Tribunal and to make consequential amendments to other acts, now being considered by this committee. Implementing this important legislation will enable us to make significant progress on the resolution of specific claims and allow first nations to reap the benefits of these agreements and the economic opportunity that will follow.
The Government of Canada has worked in concert with the Assembly of First Nations. Together, we have spared no effort to develop the bill that was announced at the end of last year. This unique cooperation was gratifying for both parties.
Finally, I would also like to take a moment to provide you with an update on the implementation of the historic Indian residential schools settlement agreement. Although this is an aside, I'm sure you'll agree that it's an important one. I'm pleased to report that the government has received more than 88,000 applications for the common experience payment and has processed more than 73,000 of those, totalling a payout of $1.14 billion so far. At the same time, the important work of the independent assessment process has begun.
In addition to compensation, another very important element is the truth and reconciliation commission, which will soon be established and I believe is the cornerstone of the settlement agreement. This commission is crucial to moving forward in partnership with aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities across Canada toward reconciliation.
I also wish to remind the committee of the government's commitment to make a statement of apology to former Indian residential school students. This government is delivering on its commitment to a fair and lasting resolution to the legacy of Indian residential schools.
This brings me to the point I would like to leave you with this afternoon. There is a great deal at stake as we move forward on aboriginal and northern issues. The fact is, as we're all aware, Canada is facing a labour shortage as the baby boom generation retires. Mr. Chairman, the solution to this shortage is right here before us. The aboriginal population is young, growing, and eager to play an important role in the labour market in the Canadian economy.
We must do everything in our power to ensure this participation. Working with our partners, we must use all the tools at our disposal: innovative partnerships, programs and services, and, of course, financial resources.
Mr. Chairman, we know that Canadians want their valuable tax dollars properly managed. That's why our government puts a priority on strong fiscal management and accountability to those we serve. We want to ensure that our programs provide value for money and achieve concrete results. For example, effective July 1, 2008, we will be adding an audit clause to funding agreements with first nations. This will allow the conduct of audits to ensure that first nations have appropriate management, financial, and administrative controls in place, and to encourage the sharing of best practices.
Mr. Chairman, this is not a new idea—it's already in place in several government departments—but I believe it's an important move because it shows that not only are we as a government accountable to all Canadians, but also that first nations and tribal councils will be able to show their members that they too are accountable for the funds they receive from the federal government.
It is essential that we have the resources afforded by Budget 2008, and the main and supplementary estimates, to work with our partners to continue to improve quality of life and to ensure that aboriginal young people have access to the educational and skills development opportunities they need to secure a prosperous future for themselves, for their communities, and for all Canadians.
Thank you. I will now be glad to answer questions from the members of the committee.
Minister, I thank you and your officials very much for coming here today.
I have so many questions and so little time.
Let me put on the record—only because you mentioned it here—the conversation we had prior to the meeting. We want to look at the bill on matrimonial real property. We cannot put the bill through at all of its stages without having reviewed that 52-page document. We want to look at it, we want to consider it, and we look forward to working with you on it. But to fast-track it that way, I would say, is an insult to us and certainly to those it affects.
There are many questions, Minister, and if I have time I'm going to share it with one of my colleagues, but I want to talk about the supplementary estimates. They show an internal reallocation of resources of roughly $20 million from capital expenditures to grants and contributions.
When you came before this committee last November, you indicated to us that education for first nations was a priority for this government. You stated this in the House on January 31: “We would all like to have more and newer schools, but we continue to invest in schools across the country. It is a priority for the government.”
I guess what I'm doing, Minister, is questioning the priority of it. As I indicated, we're showing a reallocation of capital to operating dollars, and we know that much of it is affecting the schools. You cited the water initiatives. We appreciate those, but not at the expense of education. You and I both know, as do all members of the committee, that the aboriginal population is the youngest and fastest-growing. We've heard from communities all around the country about the cutbacks and the school projects that have not moved forward.
I guess I'm questioning the issues around several schools: Peguis; Ebb and Flow; Sioux Valley; North Spirit Lake; Wabaseemoong; the First Nations Technical Institute, which you've addressed in the House and you want to pass over to the province; and most particularly, Pelican Narrows School in Saskatchewan, which has a carbon dioxide health issue; and Deschambault, where the school burned down, and we now know the alternative is overcrowded by over 200 pupils.
My concern is with the reallocation of capital dollars intended for schools and with funding commitments being made to schools but not happening. We talk about education. You ended your presentation very eloquently on children being the future and on the importance of education and skills development, but it's not going to happen if they don't have the facilities.
Thank you, I appreciate that. You have several questions, and I'll try to answer them.
First of all, it's important to know that the kids aren't in the school that you were in back in 2002. Because of the fumes and the problems there with an oil spill that occurred whenever it occurred—some years ago—there's been investment of about $3 million in new facilities to get them out of the school and to try to.... Again, because it's a health and safety issue, it takes priority, so they're no longer in that school. It's important that people know that.
That being said, of course, there is always a demand for more or better facilities. Again, we contribute to first nations about $1 billion in these estimates for infrastructure, including everything from water to schools to housing—you name it: there' s $1 billion that goes in for housing, education, and infrastructure of different sorts.
So there is quite a bit of money out there, but it is also true that we prioritize our spending based on the factors I mentioned earlier. We emphasize health and safety as a first issue. That's why those kids were taken out of the school while we spent $3 million to do that and another $250,000 to make adjustments to the high school that was close by, again to help those kids access facilities.
Then we mitigate any health risks as a second priority: mitigating health and safety risks to existing and/or new assets. We address the backlog on water and sewer systems. Then, our fourth priority is new investments in things such as education facilities and community buildings and so on. But always things go onto the priority list.
You asked about some of the deferrals of school construction. I can tell you that I thought this question might come up, so I have some answers on it.
Over the past five years, the department has identified 29 school projects that have been deferred because of lack of funding in the country. Of the 29 school projects, twelve will commence in 2008-09, in this budget year; four will begin in 2009-10; two more in 2011-12; three in 2012-13; and the six remaining are after that.
So again, we schedule them. A dozen of them will commence this year, but Attawapiskat is not on the schedule for this year.
I have a couple of comments quickly, because it has been referenced a couple of times.
I want to touch on . I invite committee members to have a look at it. I realize it's not at this committee as yet, but it has been tabled by committee members. It really was an extensive effort to get the best bill we could for aboriginal women particularly, and families, who right now don't have any rules, if you will, that govern the distribution of matrimonial property in the case of a marriage break-up.
This bill was put together. We had extensive consultations with the AFN, with the aboriginal women's groups, and a special ministerial representative travelled the country. I think they had over 97 meetings to consult on this bill. There were a lot of recommendations that I think strengthened the bill. Just like , it's a better bill now because of those consultations.
I think it's a very good package. I realize there was reluctance to pass it today at all stages, but I'd urge all members to have a good look at it. I think it does an excellent job of balancing the collective rights of first nations, which is common land management and things held in common, with the rights of individual first nations who have to live on that land.
It is a bit of a tricky balance, but I think we've done a good job, with the help of a lot of first nations organizations and people who helped us craft a very good bill.
I'd urge all members to have a look at that, even before it comes to committee. If you have any advice for me, please let me know. I think it's a very good bill, which was made better by that consultation process.
With respect to , again, I was in Quebec City for a ceremony on that. This is a very good move toward self-government for the people in the region. One of the first meetings I had was in Kuujjuaq. I think it was the first week I had in this new job. We had discussions about moving it ahead. It was held up for a period of time in the Senate, but it's now moving ahead. All parties are supportive, and I think all concerns have been addressed.
Again, we're moving ahead. Really, all Inuit claims have now been settled. When you think of it, that's quite an accomplishment. I thank honourable members for their help to get that bill through. It's been a very good process for the Inuit and in working with the Province of Quebec.
As far as the actual estimates, Michael, could you address that?
Yes, I'm going to split my time with Mr. Russell.
Thank you, Mr. Chair, and thank you, Mr. Minister, for presenting today.
I'd like to ask you a question. There were a number of areas on which I wanted to ask you questions, including housing, water and sewer, child and family. But I'd like to focus on education, because you did say that family is a priority. Your party has claimed family, women, children are priorities, as indeed is keeping families together.
In Manitoba, in many of the communities in my riding that have local control of first nations education, they have not had adequate funding in comparison to provincial education systems. I'd like to ask about the $70 million, because you talk about families and communities being a priority.
I want to tell you a little story about a girl in one of the communities in my riding. She is in a first nation, and she's deaf. She has started school, and she now should be entering grade one. The first nation had developed a plan to keep the child in the community, in the first-nation-controlled school, and had developed a plan to support the classroom, the family, and the child. INAC refused to pay the cost of that proposal but told them they would be willing to pay the cost of sending the child away from the community to a school in Winnipeg, which would cost more than double the amount that it would have cost to keep the child in that system in her school.
So I have a very difficult time understanding, when these things are happening, the $70 million that you talk about in the tripartite agreements. Rather than supporting first nations education systems that are intent on keeping the children in the communities and educating them in the communities, instead of forcing them to send their children away, which is really what the residential school system was about.... I'd like a bit of an explanation of exactly what these tripartite agreements mean in terms of the $70 million.
You're right; those are very exciting communities. My hat is off to the leadership in those communities, not only for what they're doing in each individual community but for their collective work together. They've done good work coming together and have strengthened their hand.
In fact, I always urge first nations groups, whenever possible—and I think that's a good example—to come together and come with a common solution and a common negotiation position. I think it strengthens the hand of the first nation, but it's also a good thing for government, because senior levels of government say “We can do a deal that covers this whole region and agree together on what the provincial government is going to do, what the federal government is going to do, and first nations”. I think it's the way to go, and I was just delighted to sign off on it.
The $1.4 billion will be paid out on a schedule. Some of it's over 20 years, but the large part of it is up front. So $1.1 billion will be paid up front. They're designing what kind of trust fund they might want to put that in and how it might be utilized, but the money is going in up front in a big payment. That's why it's in the estimates in that lump sum.
The other money is paid out over a period of time for all sorts of things. We can get you that schedule if you'd like to see it. But it does stretch out for the next 20 years, as does the provincial agreement, which is separate from ours. The Province of Quebec, of course, also has a 20-year agreement with the same group of people on provincial-type services such as delivery of police services, perhaps, or different things that the province has basically contracted or agreed upon for a 20-year period.
So the things that are federal cover the same 20-year period as those of the province, in a separate agreement with the same group of people, but there is a big lump-sum payment up front. The rest of it is over the next 20 years. We can get you the schedule of how that money is being paid out and how it's being held to account.
It is an exciting community. People should go there. In fact, I would urge people who aren't from the region to go. If they can take a trip up to this country and see how these communities are organizing themselves, it will dispel some of your myths about first nations communities. They have got their act together in a sense of setting priorities. We held this in a nice community centre, with new school facilities close by and lots of new houses. The guy who was driving me around was a police officer. He had market-based housing. He drove me by his house. That's his house that he financed. It's on first nations land. In other words, it was just a pleasure to hear how excited they were about the opportunities they have in their communities. I encourage people to take a trip up there and drop a few tourist dollars into their pockets.