Thank you very much, Mr. Chair, honourable colleagues. It is a pleasure for me to be here today. I know that there is a great deal going on in my department.
Colleagues, I have with me today members of the National Defence team: Robert Fonberg, the Deputy Minister of the Department of National Defence; Denis Rouleau, the Vice-Admiral and Vice-Chief of the Defence Staff; Dan Ross, the Assistant Deputy Minister (Materiel); and Major-General Walt Semianiw, the Chief of Military Personnel. Finally, I have as well, and I'm pleased to introduce to you, Lieutenant-General André Deschamps, the new Chief of the Air Staff, just having assumed that post last week. So I'm delighted to be surrounded by some very capable members of the National Defence team.
As I said at the outset, Mr. Chair, it's always a pleasure to be with you. In the time since my last appearance here, there has been a lot of activity within the Department of National Defence. I'll begin immediately with the most relevant development, in my view—that is, issues that stem from the Canada First defence strategy, which, as you know, calls for an investment of $490 billion in personnel, equipment, readiness, and infrastructure over a 20-year period. These are known as the four pillars of the Canada First defence strategy, and I'm pleased to report that we're making progress in a number of the key objectives of that strategy.
We are looking to increase the numbers of the Canadian Forces. Last year alone, the Canadian Forces enrolled more than 7,000 new recruits. And this year, we are on course to exceed our target. Furthermore, the drop in the attrition rate is more good news. Over the last two months, this rate has fallen to 8.47%, or more than a full percentage point.
A comprehensive new retention strategy, released this summer, is helping. The new strategy offers a renewed commitment to military families, greater flexibility with respect to career options and better career management support.
Mr. Chair, of course, once you have the people, which is the most valuable asset we have at the Department of National Defence, you need to ensure that they have the equipment, the tools, they need to do the work we expect of them. This year alone I've had the opportunity to travel across the country to visit a number of our bases and announce numerous investments or improvements, particularly to do with aging infrastructure that you would understand, in many cases, has not been touched since the Second World War.
I was in Gagetown, for example, in July to announce one of our core Canada First defence strategy equipment commitments; that is, the family of land combat vehicles. This is a project worth in excess of $5 billion, and it will essentially replace all of the core capabilities of land combat.
I announced another one of the government's major acquisitions in August in Halifax: new heavy-lift F-model Chinook helicopters. The price tag there is over $2 billion.
And I've had an opportunity to travel from Gander, Newfoundland, to Esquimalt, British Columbia, to announce infrastructure projects ranging from new maintenance hangars to road, water, and sewer upgrades, and a new health services centre on many of the bases across the country.
Our investments are bringing significant economic benefits, as you would understand, Chair, to communities right now; that is, they're creating jobs in keeping with the government's other plans around economic stimulus. We're seeing local contractors and suppliers, local hands on local shovels, going to work on many of these projects on these military bases. Just two weeks ago, for example, this government announced significant benefits for companies arising from the Chinook acquisition, and if we want to get into some further detail about those actual projects and subcontracts for local suppliers, I'm pleased to discuss those details.
With respect to domestic operations, the men and women of the Canadian Forces continue to perform at a very high and demanding tempo. In addition to deployments on 18 different missions, from Afghanistan to Haiti to Africa, we know we're working in support of other agencies like the RCMP, and Public Safety, in preparation for the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, while at the same time carrying out many other important duties, such as maritime and arctic surveillance, and search and rescue operations.
I know we'll have a chance to talk about this further, Mr. Chair and colleagues, but keep in mind that Canada has the world's largest coastline. We have very demanding and diverse terrain across this country. We have NORAD responsibilities now that include maritime approaches, so our home game, if I can put it that way, in addition to the away game, is an extremely busy time for the men and women of the Canadian Forces.
You would all know our government's commitment and our country's interest in the northern strategy, which was released this year, which focuses on sovereignty, social and economic development, governance, and the environment. In August I spent a week in several northern communities in the territories, with the Prime Minister and other members of the cabinet, on board the HMCS Toronto. We also had the HMCS Corner Brook, one of our submarines, to observe Operation Nanook, which is the Canadian Forces' annual sovereignty exercise. We saw there the participation of more than 700 people from 15 different government departments and agencies participating in this operation, which is just one of the ways we're demonstrating a visible Canadian presence in the Arctic, in addition to investments in infrastructure such as ports, runways, and buildings in the Arctic.
On Afghanistan, and on the international front, again, I would suggest to you, colleagues, that our men and women in uniform continue to perform magnificently, continue to earn the respect of our allies and partners in the United Nations-mandated, NATO-led mission in Afghanistan. The recently released fifth quarterly report of the Afghanistan mission, which I commend to you, provides an honest and frank account of our mission for the quarter ending June 30. Despite setbacks in the security environment--and I note, as all of you will, with sadness the attacks this morning in Kabul that have taken the lives of Afghan citizens, and certainly our thoughts and prayers are with those who were affected by this most recent insurgency attack. Despite this very challenging security environment, there has been progress. I never overlook the inextricable connection between security and development. We have achieved notable progress on benchmarks that are outlined in the Afghanistan report that I mentioned.
We are seeing continued progress on our benchmarks, from immunization of children to the education programs. We are building schools, hospitals, and roads that connect many of the villages. One of our major signature projects that I know you're familiar with, Mr. Chair, is the building of the Dahla Dam. The irrigation that comes from that allows Afghans to grow alternative crops like wheat, as opposed to poppies. I want to draw to your attention the fact that this year, for the first time in 40 years, Afghanistan will produce more wheat than poppies, and will produce sufficient wheat to feed their entire population, which we believe is of significant importance.
On visits to Afghanistan I was impressed by the improved capabilities. Others would have also noted that the Afghan national security forces, both army and police, are making gains in their ability to plan, execute, and sustain independent operations. Let's never lose sight of the fact that one of the primary goals is to enable and empower Afghan security forces to essentially protect their own population, protect their own sovereignty, and do the job that in many cases NATO and Canadian soldiers are doing on their behalf.
A major development in the way Canadian and Afghan forces conduct operations in Kandahar was and will be the continued arrival of U.S. reinforcements. That enabled a shift in focus from disrupting the insurgency in the countryside to protecting the population in and around Kandahar City. Known as the village approach, this is something that we believe other countries are emulating. This is specifically referenced in the recent report of the commander of ISAF. Stanley McChrystal spoke of the success and the pursuit of this village approach, which is “take, hold, build”.
With security in place, we believe that Canadian development aid is enabling the villagers of Deh-e-bagh village, for example, to undertake some of the projects vital to their interests, such as solar-powered street lights, irrigation, and road repair. These projects are providing work for local Afghans, and more projects are in the works. We have found consistently that when we're able to hire local Afghans to do much of this work, having a shovel or a pick in your hand is a great alternative to having a rifle or being drawn into the insurgency.
This new village-based approach is making insurgency less relevant to the population and allowing them to focus on the quality-of-life provisions that we're working with them to develop. It again illustrates this link between security and development.
The Canadian way of operating is recognized and cited by senior NATO commanders as an example to follow.
Mr. Chair, Canadian Forces success comes down to the men and women who put the equipment, the operations and the strategies into action. We as a government have an obligation to care for these people who work so hard to serve their country. This government is committed to providing them with a level of care that reflects the very high value we place on them and their service. As the CDS and I readily admit, we are not perfect at this, but we are getting better at it every day.
Earlier this year, I was pleased to announce our government's decision to cover the full cost of insuring Canadian Forces members against service related injuries and illness. I also announced the opening of integrated personnel support centres across the country.
Mr. Chair, some of the improvements, which I know we'll have an opportunity to discuss, are moving along quite well. I had the chance to visit personally and speak to some of the clients as well as some of the health care service providers who are currently working in these joint personnel support units.
It is a sign of what I would describe as a compassionate shift in the direction of providing greater service for those men and women who have put themselves in harm's way and who have sustained, in many cases, serious injuries, both physical and mental. We are taking great strides to deal with those very real results of their incredible service to Canada.
In fact, this summer the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Natynczyk, launched the “Be the Difference” campaign, a mental health awareness campaign to educate Canadian Forces personnel on mental health issues.
I will share with you, colleagues, that last night the Canadian Forces were recognized by the Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health. Mental health issues were front and centre. There was a great deal of recognition in the room for the efforts that the Canadian Forces have already undertaken to deal with mental health issues--most importantly, putting the issue before the public in an attempt to destigmatize.
You can understand that within the culture of the Canadian Forces there has often been--and continues to be, to some extent--very much a stoicism and strength, and there was a stigma attached to having issues, particularly issues related to post-traumatic stress, which we are now confronting.
With respect to this, in terms of the economic need, as part of the ongoing five-year $52 million plan, we've begun to host a number of new initiatives. This means a directorate dedicated completely to mental health, and more mental health care workers. That's an issue I'll come back to during the course of our discussion; there is a general need in the country, as you would know, for more psychologists and psychiatrists, not just in the Canadian Forces but more broadly.
We've also now identified and moved forward on a centre for expertise in addictions treatment. We are chairing an international experts group on suicide prevention, and we are conducting research on post-traumatic stress and mild traumatic brain injury.
I want to commend the fine work of this committee for the work that you have done and for the report that was tabled yesterday in the House of Commons along with the government's response to your recommendations. Your committee's report on the health services of the Canadian Forces that we provide to the men and women in uniform is extremely timely considering our continued and ongoing efforts to improve in this critical area.
In fact, it's clear from the long list of programs that I just mentioned and the recommendations of this committee that some of these initiatives are very much under way. I hope you will find that the response by the government to your committee report addresses many of the genuine concerns that were raised.
I want to thank you again for the time and thought and obvious personal attention and care that was put into this discussion and this study.
Again, just to conclude--I know you want to move on to questions--I want to thank the members of the committee for the invitation to be with you this morning. I want to thank you for your ongoing work on important defence and security issues for our country.
Thank you for your attention and for your commitment to improving Canadian Forces services.
We as a government have made a lot of progress in many areas, and will continue to work towards greater success. We look forward to working with this committee to continue making progress on a number of the important issues.
I am more than ably supported by the gentlemen here with us.
Again, both men and women of the Canadian Forces thank you for your continued interest in their well-being and in the work they do on behalf of all Canadians.