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Honourable Chuck Strahl, PC, MP
Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development and
Federal Interlocutor for Métis and Non-Status Indians
New York, N.Y.
May 1, 2008
Check against delivery
(Acknowledgements of Ambassadors, others dignitaries, according to official protocol)
Thank you for your kind introduction. It is an honour to join you today.
(Rangers and Penguins)
I welcome this opportunity to share with you some of the novel approaches that my government has championed to increase the inclusion of Canada's Aboriginal peoples in the social and economic fabric of our country.
Canada is a prosperous nation providing a wealth of economic, social and cultural opportunities, all the while respecting and protecting the rights and freedoms of our citizens.
In Canada, Aboriginal and treaty rights are specifically protected in our Constitution. Section 35, section 32 and others specifically speak to Aboriginal rights and title.
These Aboriginal treaty rights are further safeguarded under numerous self-government and land claims agreements, federal legislation and enforced through judicial decisions going as high as the Supreme Court of Canada.
Canada's history, laws and values oblige us to acknowledge our past. This is a task my government has embraced.
Over the past two years, we have undertaken the deep structural changes required to effect meaningful change, tackling these issues openly, honestly, and with respect and compassion.
We are working hard to come to terms with our past - to meet obligations, to resolve disputes and to achieve a deeper healing and reconciliation.
Canada plays an active role in advancing Aboriginal peoples' priorities - not only domestically, but internationally as well. Indeed, my reason for being here today is to share best practices and open our dialogue on matters of mutual interest.
Today, I would like to explore several key areas of activity which illustrate the Government of Canada's commitment to forging a better future for Indigenous peoples.
I will touch briefly on our international initiatives, as well as domestic efforts to:
For over 20 years, Canada has been one of the leading international voices calling for a global Declaration that would promote and protect the individual rights and freedoms of Indigenous people, as well as recognizing the collective rights of Indigenous peoples around the world.
To be frank, in spite of good intentions, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples fell short of our expectations in a number of areas - particularly the sections on lands and resources; the concept of free, prior and informed consent; and self-government.
As an alternative, our government has taken concrete steps ahead of the aspirational UN Declaration, to provide real rights for Canada's Aboriginal peoples. I mentioned that we have protection for Aboriginal people in our Constitution.. and we tabled legislation to give full human rights protections to on-reserve First Nations, something they have been denied for 30 years.
This is something that virtually every other Canadian can take for granted under the Canadian Human Rights Act.
We have also introduced important Matrimonial Real Property Rights to ensure a fair outcome for an Aboriginal family - especially women - when a relationship goes bad. More on those a little bit later.
Our position on the Declaration notwithstanding, Canada continues to take effective action abroad to achieve its goals. A fine illustration of Canada's commitment to international Indigenous issues is a program funded by the Canadian International Development Agency.
The Indigenous Peoples Partnership Program links Aboriginal groups in Canada with Indigenous partners in Latin America and the Caribbean to share knowledge, experience and expertise on sustainable development and poverty reduction initiatives. The Program has supported projects in traditional health practices, connectivity, and youth leadership, to name a few.
Canada also led efforts to ensure inclusion and recognition of the perspective of Indigenous peoples at the last two Summits of the Americas. This helped to elevate awareness and attention to the rights and living conditions of Aboriginal people throughout the Americas.
Canada has also played a key role in ensuring that Aboriginal peoples are represented in international decision-making bodies such as the Arctic Council. The Council is a high-level intergovernmental forum that engages Indigenous peoples and other inhabitants of Arctic regions on important issues, such as sustainable development and environmental protection.
Canada has also demonstrated its commitment to international processes and dialogues that seek to address the challenges of the large-scale migration of Aboriginal peoples from their traditional lands to urban centres. We have been working closely with a number of UN organizations in advancing cooperation on this important issue.
For example, the World Urban Forum, held in Vancouver just two years ago, included the largest focus to date on issues surrounding urban Indigenous peoples.
As many of you are aware, historically we have worked proactively - and sometimes quietly - within the United Nations to advance the rights and interests of Indigenous peoples. Our country played an active role in creating the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues - arguably the most important mechanism to recognize and promote the interests and rights of Indigenous peoples.
Recently, Canada also contributed to the creation of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and supported the renewal of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of Indigenous people.
Our government's commitment to the inclusion of Aboriginal peoples in the social and economic life of their nation at the international level is eclipsed only by our action at home in Canada.
On the home front, we are also taking decisive action to promote and protect the rights of Indigenous peoples based on our existing human rights obligations and commitments.
Canada has made tremendous strides in rectifying past wrongs and creating opportunities for a better future for the First Peoples.
In the past fiscal year, our government spent $10.2 billion on Aboriginal programs and services - a billion dollar increase over any previous federal budget. We have moved forward on multiple fronts, including economic development, safe drinking water, land claims, and the extension of human rights protection to First Nations on reserve.
As a government, we are convinced that the best way for individuals to succeed and for economies to prosper is through education and economic development.
As testament to this conviction, we have announced new investments in education across Canada. We have dedicated $70 million in new investments - on top of the $1.6 Billion a year we already spend - to improve First Nations education outcomes through enhanced accountability and by encouraging greater partnership and alignment with the provincial education systems.
Our government has passed groundbreaking legislation that forges a unique three-way partnership with the Government of Canada, First Nations and the province of British Columbia. This partnership marries First Nations control over education with clear accountability for results and the assurance of provincial standards for students and teachers. As a result, all children are able to benefit from quality education.
And just last week, we signed another important education partnership with the province of New Brunswick and the 15 First Nations there. It was historic, as it will close the gap between funding for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students while bringing fundamental and systemic change to their education.
Growing labour shortages across all sectors of the Canadian economy are opening up unprecedented opportunities in the job market. With the fastest-growing population in the country, there are extraordinary prospects for educated Aboriginal young people to participate fully in the economy, particularly in the booming mining and energy sectors.
I am also proud to share with you news that our government has dedicated an additional $70 million for measures within a new Aboriginal economic development framework.
To tap into the broader Aboriginal labour pool, we have refocused our Urban Aboriginal Strategy - 50% of our Aboriginal peoples live in cities - to improve life skills, promote entrepreneurship and employment skills, and support Aboriginal women, children and families. In addition to the Urban Aboriginal Strategy, funding has doubled for Aboriginal Skills and Employment Partnerships with industry.
These partnerships provide Aboriginal people with the skills and training necessary to take advantage of job openings while providing employers with a valuable new source of skilled workers.
To support job creation within Aboriginal communities, legislation is being implemented in areas such as commercial and industrial development on reserves, land management, oil and gas and monies management, taxation, and financial and statistical management.
These important new tools are enabling First Nations to truly manage and expand their local economies.
As I'm sure most of you are aware, Canada will proudly host the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games in Vancouver and Whistler in my home province of Beautiful British Columbia.
The federal and provincial governments are working with the Organizing Committee and the four host First Nations - on whose traditional territory the Games will be held - to ensure that Aboriginal peoples of Canada participate fully and benefit from the opportunities afforded by this important international event. .. You need to come to BC in 2010!! I will be taking names and I hope to see you there!!
The Government of Canada is placing an equal emphasis on improving living conditions for Aboriginal people. We have taken concrete action to ensure that all First Nations reserves have access to clean, safe drinking water. Real progress has been made and tangible results achieved.
In early 2006, when we took office, there were - shockingly - 193 high risk water systems in First Nations communities. That number has now been reduced by more than half. At that time, 21 communities with high risk systems were identified as 'priorities'. Today, only six communities remain on that list.
Clearly, there is more work to do on this file, and we are committed to our $330 million clean water action plan to get the job done right.
We are also actively working with First Nations to increase the supply of safe and affordable housing and to help communities create new housing options that will provide a means to build equity and generate wealth. A more market-based approach will increase the housing supply on reserve and giving First Nation families and individuals a greater range of housing options - particularly home ownership and market rental units - and greater control over their social conditions.
Our commitment to empowering individuals and protecting the vulnerable is also evident in our significant new investments for family violence prevention programs and services. In addition to increased funding for existing shelters, we are building additional women's shelters for victims of violence, and we are moving ahead with our provincial and First Nation partners to implement a prevention-based approach to protecting child welfare on reserves.
As mentioned earlier, my government is particularly proud of its efforts to stand up for the rights of Aboriginal people in instances where they have historically been denied. We have been working hard to provide long-overdue protection for women, children and families affected by gaps in the law regarding matrimonial real property, and we are working to extend legal protection to First Nations people whose rights are not currently protected under the Canadian Human Rights Act or CHRA.
30 years ago, when Canada enacted the CHRA, Aboriginal people on-reserve were exempted, supposedly to give them time to adjust to the new rights reality.
First Nations peoples on-reserve have been waiting 30 years for real human rights in Canada - it is our government that is trying to finally deliver them.
As proud as I am of these initiatives, my government's greatest legacy will undoubtedly be our success in accelerating claims settlements and advancing reconciliation.
A prime example is our new Action Plan, entitled "Justice At Last."
This plan is designed to resolve the backlog of outstanding specific claims.
These claims are grievances relating to land and other assets belonging to First Nation communities that have arisen largely as a result of unfulfilled obligations under historic treaties.
After decades of promises - there is a famous road paved with lofty promises - our government has demonstrated the political will to see that these much-needed reforms are not simply discussed, but implemented immediately.
To assist this process, we have introduced legislation creating an independent tribunal - with independent funding - which will ensure greater fairness and more timely resolution to the claims process. The National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations has signed a political agreement with our government, signifying a joint commitment to collaborate closely on ongoing policy work associated with specific claims.
My government also continues to negotiate modern treaties and self-government agreements at a pace never before seen.
To date, 36 communities with a total population of approximately 35,000 people have negotiated Aboriginal self-government agreements in Canada. They have acquired the necessary authorities and resources to manage their own affairs.
Different communities have negotiated different kinds of agreements that work for them, and work for Canada. It shows that our Constitution works well for Aboriginal people seeking to exercise their options available to them.
And we have transferred hundreds of millions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of acres of land to settle land clams in virtually every corner of Canada. In so doing, we are creating the conditions for self-sufficiency and self-determination within the Canadian Constitution and modern reality.
All of these agreements acknowledge that, to achieve economic prosperity and the peaceful development of society in the future, we must deal fairly with obligations arising from the past.
Further evidence of this recognition and commitment can be seen in the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. This historic Agreement includes compensation to former students who resided at government and church-run Indian Residential Schools. We have processed more than 90 percent of compensation claims in the last six months. In total, we have distributed $1.3 billion dollars to 64,000 individuals.
But the settlement is about much more that simple financial compensation.
The Government of Canada has invested in a Healing Foundation to work in communities, and has committed to making an apology to former Indian Residential School students.
The agreement also includes the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
I am delighted that this week Justice Harry Laforme was appointed as Chair to oversee this important task, and I am encouraged that the Commission has significant support from Canada's Indigenous peoples. Justice Laforme is Canada's most senior Aboriginal judge.
The Government of Canada has much faith in this independent body, which is designed to look at the truth of Canada's past and present and which will give voice to those who have experienced first-hand the Indian residential school system. The Commission will provide a culturally appropriate venue for former students to share their stories presenting a unique opportunity to educate all Canadians about the sad legacy of Indian Residential Schools.
By researching and examining the conditions that gave rise to this regrettable chapter in our history, it will contribute to truth, healing and reconciliation.
The Commission will also be forward-looking and results-oriented in terms of rebuilding and renewing relationships between Indigenous and non-Aboriginal Canadians. It is critical that we continue to chart a new course for a respectful and mutually-beneficial future, together.
I am not here to pretend that we have solved all the outstanding challenges confronting Canada's First Peoples. Nor am I suggesting that we have cornered the market when it comes to good ideas about how to address the remaining problems facing Indigenous people the world over.
However, there can be no question of Canada's commitment and steady progress in making amends for the mistakes of the past and restoring Aboriginal Canadians' rightful place in society.
Nor is there any doubt of our resolve to work in productive partnership with Aboriginal people, other governments and all other partners with a stake in these issues - both in Canada and around the globe.
Just as clearly… there is no turning back. The Government of Canada has the determination and commitment - and the momentum and support of willing partners - to do even more.
I am confident that a better future for Indigenous people - and, therefore, for the global community - is not only possible, but within our grasp.
I can assure you of my unwavering personal commitment, and that of the Government and people of Canada, to ensure that this vision is realized.
I welcome and appreciate your comments and thank you for this opportunity to learn how you too are including Aboriginal peoples as full partners in the life of your nation.