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View Bernard Valcourt Profile
Mr. Chair, first of all, let me say that I am pleased to be here today and honoured that the Prime Minister has appointed me to the role and responsibility of aboriginal affairs and northern development. As minister, of course, I look forward to working with you, Mr. Chair, and all of your committee members in order to advance our, I'm sure, mutual desire to see healthier, more prosperous, and self-sufficient aboriginal communities across Canada.
As some of you may know, I had a limited but most exciting stint in this department back in the 1980s. I served as the minister of state for, in those days, Indian affairs and northern development, mainly in charge of the native economic development program. Coming back almost 20 years later—I was very young then—I am pleased to see and I acknowledge that much progress has been made since then from settling land claims and specific claims, to achieving self-government agreements, to increasing economic development both on an off reserve. There is clear evidence that aboriginal peoples are participating more fully in Canada's social and economic life. That said, however, I also acknowledge—the government knows and I know—that more critical work remains to be done.
Over the coming weeks, I will be meeting with aboriginal leaders and communities across the country, including aboriginal youth, to advance dialogue on our shared priorities. In my short tenure thus far, I have already had the opportunity to meet with a number of aboriginal partners, including the National Chief; Métis and Inuit leaders; and representatives from the Native Women's Association of Canada. I look forward to working together with all of our partners.
I want to assure you that our government’s commitment to creating jobs, economic growth and long-term prosperity doesn't stop at the door of aboriginal communities or of first nations. We want aboriginals to take full advantage of all the economic opportunities that Canada has to offer. That is why we are taking action to address remaining obstacles and structural barriers that are preventing aboriginal people from achieving their full potential.
For example, we have heard from first nations who have been calling for improved education systems. That is a fundamental issue, one that I feel is key. We are responding to those calls, just as we are responding to calls to ensure access to safe drinking water on reserve. We are taking action.
But we are not only committed to making these structural reforms, we are also committed to supporting these reforms with the necessary resources, but in a way that is responsible, of course, as well as transparent, strategic and targeted. I believe that committee members will see that this commitment is made clear in my department’s 2013-14 main estimates and supplementary estimates (C) for fiscal 2012-13, which is what I am here to speak to you about today.
The 2013-14 main estimates, Mr. Chair, forecast departmental expenditures of approximately $8 billion. That's a net increase of $178 million, and is 2.3% above last year's main estimates.
That increase, at a time of economic uncertainty and fiscal prudence and of our commitment to Canadians to reduce the deficit, and eliminate the deficit, reflects our government's unwavering commitment to improving the quality of life for aboriginal people and northerners and to creating jobs and economic growth.
I'm sure you all know that last year's economic action plan included increased funding for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada in several key areas over the coming year. This includes more money for the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement and for the priorities we share with first nations, such as the first nations water and waste water action plan, first nations education, and other priorities. You can see this increased funding reflected in the main estimates.
Mr. Chair, I want to take this opportunity to maybe expand a bit on these items.
The main estimates include additional funds of $224.5 million for fiscal year 2013-14 to go towards the continued implementation of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. This includes additional funding for claimants under the independent assessment process and the alternative dispute resolution and common experience payment program. It also includes funding for the administration and research required for the government to continue to fulfill its obligations under the agreement.
As you know, the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement is court directed and agreed to by multiple parties, including legal counsel for former students, the Assembly of First Nations, and Inuit representatives. Our government, I can assure you, will continue to honour and respect the terms of the agreement.
The estimates also include $137.4 million for the First Nations Water and Wastewater Action Plan. Our government and first nations have a shared goal of ensuring first nations have the same access to safe, clean drinking water in their communities as all other Canadians.
Access to safe drinking water, the effective treatment of wastewater and the protection of sources of drinking water in first nation communities are critical to ensuring the health and safety of first nations. You may remember that Economic Action Plan 2012 included $330.8 million over two years to help sustain progress made to build and renovate water infrastructure on reserve and to support the development of a long-term strategy to improve water quality in first nation communities.
More specifically, this money is going towards training for operators of water and wastewater systems on reserve and capital investments targeted at the highest risk systems. And we are already seeing results. We have seen the number of high-risk water systems on reserve decrease by more than 8% and we have trained hundreds of operators through the Circuit Rider Training Program.
These resources are only one part of our government's comprehensive long-term plan to improve on-reserve water and waste water, which is founded on three pillars: one, enhanced capacity building and operation training; two, enforceable standards and protocols; and three, infrastructure investments.
Bill S-8, the safe drinking water for first nations act, is currently before the House, and is a critical step toward ensuring that first nations have enforceable standards for safe drinking water on reserve. I hope that this bill will come before the committee soon.
The last area I'd like to expand upon is the $115 million for initiatives to improve first nations education, which is also included in the main estimates. Our government goal here is to provide first nations students with a quality education that provides them with the same opportunities and choices as other Canadian students. By improving the graduation rate, we will ensure that first nations students have the skills they need to pursue additional education, or enter the labour market and become full participants in a strong Canadian economy.
Economic action plan 2012 committed an additional $275 million over three years to support first nations elementary and secondary education. This included new resources to build and renovate schools on reserve, and to support early literacy programming and partnerships with provincial school systems.
We know that money is not the only answer. That is why we are committed to making the structural changes needed to improve literacy and graduation rates and to ensure students have safe and secure learning environments. All of that will help pave the way for the development of a First Nations Education Act. As you are aware, this project is currently the subject of intensive consultations across Canada. This legislation will put in place the structures and standards to support strong and accountable education systems on reserve.
We are committed to working with first nations parents, educators, leaders and others to have a First Nations Education Act in place by September 2014. It is an ambitious goal, but I truly believe that we can reach it. I hope committee members will support us in these efforts.
I cannot ignore the reality that my department, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, must demonstrate fiscal prudence. As you know, the department’s budget will be reduced by $240.1 million over three years. Of that amount, $160.6 million will be ongoing annual savings starting in 2014-15. We have achieved these savings by identifying departmental efficiencies and streamlining operations while protecting delivery of essential programs and services to first nations and northerners.
Supplementary estimates (C) for the fiscal year 2012-13 also contain key initiatives totalling $36.9 million. This includes $20.6 million to address urgent health and safety pressures on first nations communities, especially as they relate to evacuations in northern Manitoba and Ontario due to forest fires, recovery from flooding in Saskatchewan, and floods and storm surges in the Atlantic region under the emergency management assistance program.
There is $12.7 million for the urban aboriginal strategy, to reduce the barriers to urban aboriginal peoples' participation in the economy.
Mr. Chair, these investments and initiatives I've outlined today will contribute to the progress we are making in addressing issues facing northerners and aboriginal peoples in Canada, and will enable them to take advantage of all the opportunities Canada has to offer. Our plans support the partnerships, advance our legislative initiatives, and set the stage for continued progress. I'm confident they will drive progress on important issues of concern to aboriginal peoples, and indeed to our country as a whole.
If I want to give you a chance to ask questions, I better shut up. At this time, I'd be pleased to answer any questions that members of the committee might have on the content of these estimates.
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
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