Thank you, Mr. Chair and honourable colleagues. It's wonderful to be with you today in this exciting committee.
I am honoured to appear before you as the Minister of Rural Economic Development, but foremost, as the member for Long Range Mountains in the magnificent province of Newfoundland and Labrador.
For those who don't know, my riding is what I call really rural. Believe it or not, it's the size of Switzerland and I'm honoured to represent over 200 communities. It even has amazing chocolatiers and I would argue they are way better than Swiss chocolate.
It's important to highlight this, as I understand the challenges rural communities face. However, more important are those communities' resiliency and strength.
Rural Canada makes up approximately 20% of our population and contributes nearly 30% of our country's gross domestic product, yet we know that Canadians living in rural and remote communities face unique realities, challenges and opportunities that must be considered when designing federal policies.
We have been listening to rural Canadians. We have heard consistently that the number one priority is to address the critical need for reliable and affordable high-speed Internet for all Canadians, regardless of where they live.
Since 2015, our Liberal government has made a total of $7.2 billion available for broadband connectivity. This investment is more than all other previous governments' investments combined. We launched a universal broadband fund in November 2020, supported by $2.75 billion to bring high-speed Internet to rural, remote and indigenous communities.
I'm proud to share with the committee that since 2015, we have approved programs and projects to connect 1.7 million Canadian households. By 2026 we will connect another 1.2 million Canadian families with better, faster and affordable Internet. We're investing in broadband projects in rural communities throughout Yellowhead County in Alberta, Eagle Ridge County Estates in Saskatchewan, and my home province of Newfoundland and Labrador.
I can assure members of this committee and all Canadians that we are on track to connect 98% of Canadians by 2026 and 100% by 2030. We know that high-speed Internet is essential for Canadians in rural and remote areas to connect with loved ones, use virtual health, manage their farm, do their banking, access online education, work from home or run their business.
I have also been tasked to lead the continued implementation of the rural economic development strategy. Our government will build on existing investments, improve community-level rural and data reporting and identify improvements that could be made to programs, policies and future investments all to benefit rural communities.
Simply put, we need to develop solutions that are outside the box and outside the Ottawa bubble. Our Liberal government is focused on building a stronger, more resilient and inclusive economy for everyone, from Canadians living in our smallest remote communities to those in our largest urban centres.
To that end, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Through the enhanced GBA+, rurality is one of the indicators for consideration in development of federal policy now. We will continue to make this GBA+ analysis an even better tool.
We're making sure that our decisions, policies and programs are tailored to smaller and remote communities to address critical rural needs like connectivity, housing, climate change, health, tourism, community infrastructure, immigration and, of course, the workforce.
We are aware of the lack of rural data, so we have established agreements with Statistics Canada to improve the availability of information. With this, our government is better equipped to deliver results for rural Canada.
We are committed to ensuring that the services your federal government delivers reflect the needs of Canadians from coast to coast to coast. Specifically, I have been directed to focus on issues surrounding rural transit, mental health services and housing, and the visibility and accessibility of all these services.
Working with my cabinet colleagues, I'm confident in our ability to make real practical differences in the lives of rural Canadians. It's for those seniors living in small towns who are an hour away from the closest grocery store without access to public transit. It's for the parents of a child who needs to see a specialist and the hospital is 10 hours away, or for the newly arrived family in Canada who wants to settle in one of our small, beautiful towns, but can't find a place to call home.
I'm also working with my cabinet colleagues to ensure that Canada Post service better reaches Canadians in rural and remote areas. Working with my colleague, Minister Ng, I'm designing a new futures fund for Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and Labrador, which supports local and regional economic diversification and employs place-based strategies.
All of these efforts are critical and timely as we all work together to end the fight against COVID-19 and build back an economy that works for everyone.
Rural communities are the backbone of our economy. When rural Canada succeeds, all of Canada is stronger.
To conclude, I welcome the opportunity to work with you as we strive to achieve progress for all Canadians living in the rural communities of our great and beautiful country.
I look forward to your questions, my friends.