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The Honourable Jim Prentice, PC, QC, MP Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development and Federal Interlocutor for Métis and Non-status Indians
December 7, 2006
Check against delivery
Ladies and gentlemen, Elders, Chiefs, Councillors, National Chief, Members of the National Council, I'm pleased to be here today on the traditional territory of the Algonquin First Nations.
Je vous remercie de cette amiable présentation, monsieur le chef national Fontaine. Mesdames et messieurs, les aînés et distingués invités, je suis très honoré de prendre la parole à l'occasion de l'assemblée extraordinaire des chefs à une étape aussi cruciale de notre histoire.
It's a pleasure to be here. Ladies and gentlemen, some very harsh comments were made about this government and about me personally over the last several days, and so it's a pleasure to be here to speak to you and to respond to these matters directly. I've heard some speeches refer to broken promises and the supposed hypocrisy of the government. In spite of these remarks, I can say that collaboration between the Government of Canada and the Assembly of First Nations has sparked significant progress on a number of key issues, and that - by working together - National Chief Fontaine and I have identified and begun to move forward on solutions to challenges concerning drinking water, housing, on-reserve matrimonial property, education and economic opportunities.
I have met with many of you in this room. Over the course of the last ten months I've met with many people from the national executive. I've had the National Chief in my office within days of taking office and several times since. And I say to you that I have delivered on every promise that I made over the course of those discussions.
I begin with the Indian residential school settlement. And I would also begin by reminding you that, while in opposition, I was one of the members of parliament that drew attention to this issue and forced the previous government to move forward. And I would point out that, since becoming the minister, we have taken decisive action towards the resolution of the legacy of the Indian residential school system.
As you know, on May 10th of this year I was pleased to announce the conclusion of the settlement agreement reached with all parties. And I would point out, and the National Chief can confirm this, the discussions to resolve this issue had not finished before I took office, and so I spent much of March of this year getting this issue resolved, finalizing the settlement, dealing with the terms of the settlement and moving the Government of Canada forward.
Now, this historic settlement proposes collective and individual measures to provide tangible acknowledgement to some 80,000 former students, and it gives their families and communities an opportunity to share their experiences with all of Canada. It is a settlement agreement that I personally went to the wall on, and it is a settlement agreement that I am proud of. It is now of course working its way through the court system. As I think the National Chief himself pointed out to this audience earlier in the week, over 9,400 Elders have already received their advance payments and the court process is proceeding well.
This was something that I promised, and this is something that I have delivered on.
I mention this not to downplay our differences. Clearly, there are significant issues between the positions taken by the Assembly of First Nations and the Government of Canada on a range of topics, and I'm fully prepared to be accountable and to discuss these.
For example, I believe that we must agree to disagree about the United Nations Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. As the Assembly of First Nations members know, the Government of Canada is not in favour of the Draft Declaration in its current form. Ratifying the declaration, in my view, would have serious and unintended repercussions in this country, including repercussions for First Nations.
As one of the few nations in the world with constitutionally entrenched Aboriginal rights, Canada takes the precise wording of the Draft Declaration very seriously. This is why we have not been able to support the text in its current draft. However, I've said that I'm fully prepared to exercise leadership on this matter and to work together to try to arrive at wording thatis acceptable to Canada and to all Canadians.
I have found it very disturbing that some have said that there has been a change in Canada's position. If you choose to believe that, I can tell you that nothing could be further from the truth. No Canadian government, and no previous Canadian governments, ever supported the Draft Declaration in this form. It is therefore sheer hypocrisy for some say that this government has changed its position on this issue, because such a charge is patently false.
But to focus only on areas where we differ would be a serious mistake, because it would distract us from the larger and indisputable truth, namely, that the Government of Canada and the Assembly of First Nations are both determined to make tangible, practical progress in the quality of life experienced by Aboriginal peoples in this country. On the importance of tackling Aboriginal poverty, I fully agree with the comments of National Chief Fontaine.
Canada's New Government is absolutely dedicated to taking practical and meaningful action on the challenges that face so many Aboriginal communities. And I can tell you that both the government and myself, as the minister, deliver on what we say - we say what we do and we do what we say. In my own case, everything that I said I would undertake as the Minister of Indian Affairs I have devoted myself to and have done to the best of my ability.
The National Chief has said publicly that I am an honourable man. I thank him for this support and I will try to continue to earn it. I can tell you that - since last February, when I was appointed minister of this department, which is one of the largest and most difficult departments in the Government of Canada - what I have promised, I have delivered.
I mentioned the residential school issue; enough has been said about our decisive action on the resolution of that matter. On other important issues, I told the National Chief early on that foremost among them was the need to improve educational opportunities for First Nation children. We have done so.
On July 5th of this year, I signed a historic agreement that will lead to the recognition of First Nations' jurisdiction over education in British Columbia. This agreement is truly historic. It provides a template for First Nation education that is driven and controlled by First Nations, in cooperation with provincial education authorities. It promises to establish a system of education that will produce bright, articulate, capable, young Aboriginal Canadians - young Aboriginal Canadians who are proud of their culture, proud of their language and proud of who they are. As I've said before, and as I said in the House this week, and as I say to you today, if we accomplish these goals, First Nations will be better and this country will be better.
The process to achieve these goals is well under way. Just two days ago, Bill C-34, The First Nations Jurisdiction Over Education in British Columbia Act, passed the House of Commons. And a path has now been opened for other Aboriginal students across Canada. Discussions on similar arrangements are currently under way with almost every other province. These arrangements will have to be tailored to reflect the treaties that are in place and the other different circumstances in each province. But although much work lies ahead, I am determined to see every province of Canada provide every First Nation with an opportunity to participate in a system of education comparable to what has been developed in British Columbia. And I look forward to working toward this great but realistic goal with the dedicated people at FNESC who have taken the leadership in showing how to approach these issues.
In addition to the questions of education and residential schools resolution, early on in my discussions with the National Chief and others I promised that I would improve the quality of on-reserve drinking water, and I have acted on this promise. When I started as the minister I inherited a situation in which over 200 First Nation communities had drinking water systems that were high-risk or even worse. And for 21 of these 200 not just the drinking water systems themselves were at risk, but the continued existence of the community itself was threatened.
We've moved on these matters as quickly as possible and allocated the resources to do so. It is a practical impossibility to design, construct and open a full-service water facility in the short span of 10 months. Nevertheless, for the 21 areas at risk, we've put action plans in place and are rapidly moving forward in responding to the special requirements of each community. And for the situation as a whole, the most recent figures show that the number of communities in an unacceptable situation had been reduced from about 200 to 131.
On March 21st, here in Ottawa, the National Chief joined me in launching a plan of action for the implementation of the Protocol for Safe Drinking Water in First Nations Communities. As part of that plan of action we struck an expert panel to advise on the appropriate regulatory framework and the provision of regular progress reports. This morning I now tabled in the House of Commons the expert panel's official report of their findings and recommendations with respect to financial issues and the regulatory framework. This is what I promised to do, and this is what I have done. And now, I stand committed to move forward on these recommendations to ensure that First Nations citizens in this country have the same access to high-quality drinking water as other Canadians.
On the question of treaties, I promised the Assembly of First Nations and the National Chief that I would act on this, and I have done so. Just last week, the provincial Auditor General reported that, after 13 years of discussions in British Columbia, no treaties had been signed by the former government. But I can tell you that, in the time since I've become minister, we have moved forward with seven First Nations in the British Columbia treaty process with three agreements.
On October 29th, British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell,the Lheidli T'enneh Chief Dominic Frederick and myself initialled the very first final agreement reached under the British Columbia treaty process. And this afternoon, I am returning to British Columbia to initial the Tsawwassen and Maa-nulth final agreements. The Maa-nulth agreement deals with some five First Nations. So we have moved far forward on treaties.
I also promised that I would retool the specific claims process. This is something that I feel very strongly about, as the National Chief said, and I am working hard in this area. Right now, I'm waiting for the Senate report, which is expected over the Christmas season.
Last weekend, along with Pita Aatami, the President of the Makivik Corporation, representing about 10,000 Inuit from Nunavut, and with Premier Okalik, I signed the Nunavik Inuit Land Claims Agreement. This is the last Inuit land claim in agreement that we have concluded. I have also settled claims in Quebec and Saskatchewan, and last month I settled an historic claim involving the Songhees and Esquimalt people relating to the taking of land that had been designated as reserve land for the British Columbia Legislature.
This progress on treaties has been achieved through my personal intervention. In the case of the B.C. treaties, I met in the last hour with the negotiators and with the Chiefs. In respect to the Lheidli T'enneh treaty and the Maa-nulth treaty, I've intervened personally to make sure that outstanding issues are resolved and that the process moves forward.
With respect to specific claims, last month I met with the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs to discuss another important issue, one that I know is germane to everyone in this room, and that is the glacial pace of progress on specific claims. As you know, the Senate Committee members have begun to investigate this matter. I've said before that I am determined to identify and implement ways to accelerate the negotiating process, and I look forward to the guidance of the Senate together with, I hope, its consultations with Chiefs and the Assembly of First Nations to find solutions. I continue to be committed to a retooling of the process. The situation I've inherited involves a backlog of some 800 specific claims in the federal government. We cannot reasonably be expected to have dealt with them all in ten months. I am participating with the Senate Standing Committee to identify solutions.
I promised the National Chief that I would improve economic development for Aboriginal Canadians, and we have been doing just that. When I took over as minister, economic development had been split apart from the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. I've not spoken to one Chief in Canada who supported that change, and not a single Chief has been happy with the result. Essentially, when I started 10 months ago as the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, I had no economic development portfolio. I promised I would deal with that, and I have done so.
Less than a week ago, the government transferred the Aboriginal Business Corporation and the entire economic development portfolio of Industry back to Indian Affairs and Northern Development. Restructuring of the board is in progress. As a first step to leverage both human and financial capital, I want to see this board composed of the strongest, most able business people from First Nations and Aboriginal communities in Canada. I make that promise to you today, and I will deliver on that commitment.
There's no doubt that Canada's strong economy affords us a wonderful opportunity to achieve our goals. We must therefore make the most of it, and we must also take advantage of other positive trends.
Approximately 25,000 First Nation and Inuit students are currently enrolled in post-secondary education institutions. Some 4,500 will graduate this year alone and enter the workforce and the private sector marketplace. The number of successful businesses owned and operated by Aboriginal entrepreneurs continues to climb, and there is no question that an educated, employed population is the key to the development of prosperous and self-sustaining communities.
And so we have to work together to provide a greater number of opportunities for Aboriginal young people to participate in the Canadian economy as employees, as business leaders, as entrepreneurs and as owners and stakeholders in major resource development projects.
Nous devons continuer d'encourager la réussite des entreprises autochtones (inaudible) des entrepreneurs aient des possibilités des affaires adéquates. Nous devons faire en sorte que les étudiants des premières nations accéder en plus grand nombre aux programmes d'éducation et de formation dont ils ont besoin pour contribuer à l'économie de leur collectivité. Nous devons travailler ensemble pour veiller à ce que tous les Canadiens - autochtones et non-autochtones - puissent jouir pleinement de la prospérité de notre pays.
I indicated when I became the minister that I would improve the situation with respect to the human rights of Aboriginal women. I am keeping that promise. Much has been said about the Matrimonial Real Property consultations. I know that there is a view in some quarters that the consultations are moving too quickly. But I can tell you that this issue has been well known for some time. It has been the subject of numerous reports of the Senate and the House of Commons. It has been studied for many years. And so the time do the right thing and to act is now.
Wendy Grant-John is an outstanding Canadian First Nation citizen, a former Chief. She is clearly the right person to deal with this consultation process. And the AFN, the NWAC and their regional affiliates, amongst others, are also actively involved.
And to further recognize and protect the rights of members of First Nations, I have indicated that I intend to proceed with the repeal of Section 67 of the Canadian Human Rights Act, as I have promised to do. Currently, thousands of Canadians, primarily First Nations people, because of the role of the Indian Act in their daily lives are denied access to the Human Rights Code of Canada, which is designed to promote equality and to advance social justice. This situation is clearly unjust and unacceptable, and it has been called such by everyone who has examined it over the last 32 years. This government has committed to put an end to this situation.
In closing I think it's worth repeating what I said earlier. It is a serious and misleading mistake to remain focussed on our points of disagreement. It is only natural that we will not agree on everything all of the time. But our overarching and unifying goal is to ensure that Aboriginal peoples have the best quality of life they deserve, both for today and for generations to come, and we of course are fully in agreement on this fundamental point.
Some have said that I have one of the most difficult and challenging responsibilities in Canadian politics in the federal system. But I can tell you that I also know how difficult it is to be a Councillor and a Chief of a First Nation. I know the weight of responsibility that rests on your shoulders to protect and advance the interests of people in your communities, especially those who are vulnerable, women and children. And I know that you have some of the most difficult jobs in this country. I fully understand and appreciate that. And I am anxious that we work together to deal with all of the issues that I know you will be addressing over the course of this Assembly.
Now, in closing, ladies and gentlemen, I just want say to you that I wish you a merry Christmas. I hope that you will have time to spend with your communities and with your families. And I hope that you will have time to reflect on how fortunate we all are as Canadians, and time as well to reflect on the important work that lies ahead for us all, together. Because in partnership and in partnership alone we will deal with all of the issues that I know you are concerned about and I am concerned about.