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Notes for an address by the Honourable Chuck Strahl, PC, MP Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development and Federal Interlocutor for Métis and Non-status Indians
August 20, 2007
Check against delivery
Chiefs, Grand Chief Evans, elders, ladies and gentlemen: thank you for the gracious welcome to this general assembly. It is a pleasure for me to visit with you and an honour to address the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.
I would like to begin by noting that this is my first speaking engagement as Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development and Federal Interlocutor for Métis and non-Status Indians. I was delighted to receive this appointment from Prime Minister Harper – I am looking forward to building on the excellent work of my predecessor, Minister Prentice, and continuing to work towards improvements in the lives of all Aboriginal people in Canada.
I’m very happy to be here in Manitoba so early in my tenure as Minister. For hundreds of years, even before Manitoba joined Confederation, First Nations and Métis in this province have been making great contributions that have benefited all Manitobans. And I know that there are more to come.
This year’s 19th annual general assembly takes place against the backdrop of significant progress for First Nations in Manitoba. Far-reaching agreements have been concluded on key issues, including treaty-land entitlement and on-reserve education. Progress in a host of important areas has sparked a growing sense of optimism in First Nation communities. Today, I’d like to celebrate a few recent accomplishments and consider how we can move even further forward in the coming years.
Treaty Land Entitlement is the first item on my list. At last year’s annual assembly, Canada’s New Government made a commitment to you to take action on the unacceptable TLE backlog in Manitoba. Following discussions with the province, we set an ambitious settlement target of 150,000 acres per year for four years.
This promise was long overdue. But more importantly, getting the job done was long overdue.
Well, I am proud today to say that not only has our government kept its promise, but we have exceeded what we said we were going to do.
Since last year, we have converted more than 159,000 acres of land in Manitoba.
This represents more than twice the amount converted since the TLE agreements were signed in the 1990s.
This clearly demonstrates what collaboration and hard work can achieve together. The strength of this partnership, along with a shared commitment to the business-process improvement initiative, makes me confident that the 1997 Manitoba Treaty Land Entitlement Framework Agreement and individual agreements will be fully implemented in a timely manner and that the selection priorities of First Nations can be accommodated.
Cooperative effort is also behind another important development for First Nations in Manitoba: an education incubator project that aims to improve educational outcomes. The project gets underway next month at four on-reserve schools and we all hope it will help to begin real transformation for First Nation education across the province.
The Stephen Harper Government recognizes that too many on-reserve schools in this country lack the logistical supports and accountability mechanisms needed to deliver a quality education program. Schools participating in the incubator project will receive resource assistance in key areas, and student achievement will be monitored closely.
Similar programs in Nova Scotia—and, more recently, British Columbia—have led to solid improvements in educational outcomes. Many studies have demonstrated that children with access to a sound education are far more likely to secure stable, fulfilling jobs and to contribute to their communities. By improving the ability of on-reserve schools in this province to deliver a quality education, we create a brighter future for First Nations, for Manitoba and for Canada.
Canada’s New Government has taken action on many fronts to improve quality of life and promote a prosperous future for all Aboriginal peoples. Our agenda truly is practical and focuses on results. It involves working collaboratively with many partners to improve living standards, modernize legislative frameworks and fulfill legal obligations to First Nations.
This approach has led to tangible progress in a range of areas. I have already mentioned education; but we have also moved forward on such issues as housing, child and family services and, particularly, drinking water.
When it comes to drinking water, Manitoba has seen great success. Here in the province water treatment plant operators are trained through the Circuit Rider program, which has been instrumental in improving the quality of drinking water in First Nation communities and is cited as an example for other regions in Canada to follow.
A key part of the Circuit Rider program's success is the mentoring component. An experienced water system operator works on-site with the local operator to develop the hands-on skills, knowledge and confidence necessary to run water treatment plants.
Approximately 90 per cent of Manitoba First Nations communities now have plant operators that have completed the certified training program.
This is a very important step forward in quality of life for First Nations in Manitoba; but I also want to take a moment here to discuss the notable progress we’ve made on two other issues that have a significant impact on First Nations: specific claims and residential schools.
On June 12th , as you all know, Prime Minister Harper announced the Specific Claims Action Plan, a decisive new approach to the process of resolving specific claims.
It is common knowledge that this process is all but broken; the system is clogged with some 800 unresolved claims. It is in desperate need of a new approach.
Let me tell you, our government is listening, and getting results.
I’m very pleased that National Chief Phil Fontaine and the Assembly of First Nations are working with us to implement this fresh approach to the resolution of specific claims. The approach focuses on negotiation and mediation, and will establish an independent tribunal that can render binding decisions. A Dedicated Fund will be set aside to fund settlements; and to ensure transparency and accountability, annual reports will detail how the money is spent.
Moreover, it is important to note that claims are truly settled not when agreements are signed, but when they are implemented. To that end, there will be increased attention to implementation efforts.
Last month, a joint task force was appointed to develop legislative options for the implementation of the specific claims process. The membership of the task force—four representatives each from the Assembly of First Nations and the Government of Canada—reflects the collaborative spirit of this project. Settling claims necessarily requires a cooperative effort. I believe that a similar effort is needed to deal with the past and enable a stable, prosperous future. Each settled claim—specific, comprehensive or treaty land entitlement—serves to harmonize relations between Canada and First Nations, and produce economic and social opportunities.
The links between past, present and future are also central to efforts to address one of the most shameful chapters in Canadian history: Indian residential schools.
Thanks to the historic agreement signed last year and approved by the courts, that healing is now well underway.
Today marks the deadline for opting out of this agreement. Although the final numbers aren’t in yet, it appears that an overwhelming majority of claimants have accepted the settlement.
Compensation to former students is an important component of this, along with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It is my sincere hope that this commission will enable all Canadians to acknowledge, accept and deal with this tragic and painful chapter of our history.
As more people learn about residential schools, I believe we will build a bridge of understanding between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in Canada, and so strengthen our relationship to our mutual benefit.
First Nations in Manitoba and across the country have made solid progress on a wide range of issues. And it is entirely appropriate for us to celebrate recent accomplishments, such as TLE implementation. These achievements must inspire us to redouble our efforts to address unresolved issues. We must continue to work together and improve the quality of life experienced by First Nations, and indeed all Aboriginal people, in this country.
As a partnership of community leaders, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs recognizes the value of collaboration. I urge all of you to strengthen existing partnerships, to establish new ones and to identify and implement ways to further strengthen the effectiveness of the Assembly. I understand that the Assembly is working on establishing a consistent and effective voice. I trust this work in progress will result in a cohesive leadership with effective governance structures that carry the political influence necessary to move forward. As my first public speech, I wanted to make sure I stressed how excited I was when the Prime Minister said I was coming to INAC. It is an honour to serve the Prime Minister and it is even a greater honour to serve each and every one of you and all Aboriginal people.
A great deal has been accomplished through hard work and collaborative efforts. I congratulate you and I am looking forward to working with you to achieve still more progress in Manitoba.