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Mr. Chairman, I would like to thank you and your colleagues for permitting me to appear again before this committee. Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to discuss with members issues arising from the Main Estimates of the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development for the 2006-2007 fiscal year.
You will recall that total spending in the Main Estimates of my department is approximately $6.3 billion—roughly $366 million or 6.2 percent higher than last year's figure. This spending reflects this government's focused approach to improving the socio-economic conditions of Aboriginal peoples, and to taking action to close the gaps between Aboriginal peoples and other Canadians when it comes to education, housing, health care and other key elements of productive and fulfilling lives.
In effect, Mr. Chairman, the Main Estimates represent a first step for Canada's new government. Our second step is the 2006 federal budget. Earlier this year, the Minister of Finance announced that we would devote an additional $3.7 billion to help improve the lives of Aboriginal peoples and Northerners.
This new funding includes $450 million over two years with $300 million ongoing, to help Aboriginal peoples access supplies of clean drinking water, enhance on-reserve housing, and create valuable social programs for Aboriginal students, women, children and families.
It includes up to $300 million to help Northerners build and repair housing, up to $300 million for housing for Aboriginal people who live off reserve, and up to $500 million over 10 years to offset the potential socio-economic impacts of the Mackenzie Gas Project. It also includes $2.2 billion to resolve the legacy of the Indian residential school system.
Since we must continue to work with our Aboriginal, provincial and territorial partners on identifying the best ways to allot these substantial resources, the government will submit this budget funding for parliamentary approval not only through this set of Supplementary Estimates, but also through the Main Estimates and Supplementary Estimates that will come forward for the 2007-2008 fiscal year, and for fiscal years beyond.
As I stated, Mr. Chairman, the 2006-2007 Main Estimates and the 2006 budget are the first two major steps in the funding process. The Supplementary Estimates for this fiscal year represent the next important step.
I am pleased to report that the Supplementary Estimates provide $196 million that Canada's new government will invest this fiscal year to improve the lives of Aboriginal peoples and Northerners.
These funds will enable us to make substantial progress in several areas in which I have direct responsibility. Although my officials and I would be happy to take questions on any of the specific line items listed in the Supplementary Estimates, I would like to touch on several of the more noteworthy items.
First, I would like to draw your attention to the single-largest item-more than $67 million to help First Nation communities address urgent and critical needs brought on by fires, floods and evacuations. This specific investment will also assist residents of remote and isolated communities who suffer undue hardship as a result of rising fuel costs.
The second line item that I would like to raise deals with water. Mr. Chairman, in this spring's budget, we designated $60 million over two years to implement an action plan that ensures residents of First Nation communities can enjoy greater access to safe drinking water.
You and your colleagues will see a line item in the Supplementary Estimates of more than $22 million. This funding, which tops up this year's basic budget of the department in this area, has enabled us to put in motion our comprehensive and sustained action plan on drinking water in First Nation communities.
The plan that we have put forward establishes a protocol that sets standards for the design, construction, operation, maintenance and monitoring of drinking-water systems. It mandates training for all treatment-plant operators and a regime to ensure that qualified operators oversee all water systems. It enabled us to form a panel of experts to consult with the government on an appropriate long-term regulatory framework to govern drinking water in First Nation communities. And it commits the government to make regular reports on our progress on these and other related matters.
While more work remains to be done to improve access to safe drinking water in First Nation communities, we are making real progress right now.
In fact, throughout the summer and fall, I travelled to First Nation communities throughout the country to celebrate the opening of eight new or revamped water-treatment facilities. I expect to participate in more of these important community events in the months to come.
In addition to major investments related to emergencies and water supplies, we have invested $6 million to operate and maintain dozens of shelters and related programs for victims of family violence in First Nation communities.
We have set aside some $3.8 million to construct or renovate new schools in First Nation communities in Nova Scotia, Alberta, and Newfoundland and Labrador.
We have made a number of targeted investments that will enable several Northern and First Nation communities to respond directly to specific health and infrastructure concerns.
And we have devoted some $8.4 million to fund the extensive consultations that will help us develop an effective and sustainable solution to legal challenges related to on-reserve matrimonial real property. I will use the outcome of these consultations as the basis for legislation that I intend to present to the House early in 2007.
Let there be no doubt, Mr. Chairman: Canada's new government is acting forcefully and enthusiastically to fulfil the commitments it has made to Aboriginal peoples and Northerners, and address the immediate concerns of Aboriginal and Northern communities. We have set clear goals; we are working with partners; and we are making pragmatic investments—investments such as those laid out in the Main Estimates, in our first budget, and in these Supplementary Estimates.
Even in the short time since I was last before the committee, the new government has made steady and significant progress.
For instance, we have received and are now reviewing the report prepared by Alan Pope, the Special Federal Representative on the development of a sustainable solution for the community of Kashechewan.
We are making progress in the field of employment. Just last week I signed an agreement to work together to develop a partnership with two Nova Scotia organizations for Aboriginal employment.
And we introduced legislation that would enable interested First Nations in B.C. to design and deliver the high-quality education that their communities so richly deserve.
Later today, I will receive the report of the Auditor General of Canada on the BC treaty process. I intend to examine this report closely and seriously consider all recommendations.
Furthermore, my department's Performance Report was tabled last week for the last fiscal year—a crucial accountability document that measures our progress—honestly and openly—and presents the results of our work to Canadians in a clear and transparent manner.
Mr. Chairman, I can assure the committee that the progress that has been so clearly evident over the past several weeks will continue in the months to come.
This Friday, I will be in Kuujjuaq in northern Quebec to witness the signing of the Nunavik Inuit Land Claims Agreement-the last of the Inuit land claims in Canada.
I also expect to be in British Columbia several times in the coming months to participate in announcements related to the settlement of land claims in that province.
My department will continue to work in collaboration with Aboriginal partners to increase the supply of affordable housing for Aboriginal peoples on reserve, in urban areas and in the North.
As I mentioned, I will introduce legislation to resolve legal challenges related to on-reserve matrimonial real property.
And the government will make specific structural reforms in the machinery of government-reforms that will enable us to take full advantage of investments in education and Aboriginal economic development.
In fact, Mr. Chairman, I am pleased to report to the committee that, beginning December 1st, Aboriginal Business Canada and SchoolNet—two extraordinarily successful initiatives—will be transferred from Industry Canada to my department. I am convinced that consolidating Aboriginal education and economic-development functions—having them all in one department, under the supervision of one minister and one deputy minister—will enable us to put in place a more unified, coherent and effective approach to Aboriginal education and economic development.
In closing, Mr. Chairman, I would like to thank you and your colleagues for inviting me to appear before the committee today. I place great value on our ongoing dialogue and appreciate your enthusiastic engagement on the important issues that I have raised today.
In particular, I would like to thank you for your report on Aboriginal post-secondary education. Your active participation on this and on many other issues will be essential as we continue to make clear, steady progress on helping Aboriginal peoples and communities overcome the challenges they face.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I would be delighted to respond to questions and comments from committee members.