And now for something altogether different

After the jump, the prepared text for a speech Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl delivered to the Public Policy Forum last week. More astute policy minds are welcome to offer analysis.

Whatever you do, don’t bother with a Google search comparison of the coverage received for this as compared to coverage of other recent developments in Ottawa. It will not make you feel any better about our politics.

Thank you for the kind introduction.

(Acknowledgments of hosts, officials, dignitaries in the audience, as appropriate…)

Thank you for allowing me to speak at the start of your important forum.

I welcome this opportunity to meet with Canada’s business and Aboriginal leaders – important allies in advancing our Conservative government’s strong agenda. An agenda that will see us jointly create a competitive 21st Century economy that generates benefits for all members of society.

Your support and leadership are crucial as we work together to overcome the challenges of these uncertain times, and ready Canada for the economic rebound … charting a course for a prosperous future for all Canadians.

I have come here today to outline our Government’s efforts to ensure that Aboriginal Canadians play a pivotal role in achieving this goal and benefit fully from its realization.

As the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, I have made it my mission to make tangible progress and continual improvements to the everyday lives of Aboriginal Canadians. I am convinced that, working with willing partners like you, we can put an end to the historic isolation of Aboriginal communities that has marginalized First Nations, Inuit and Métis members of our society for far too long.

I also want to talk about why this matters to you and your companies, and why you need to be involved. There is a strong argument both for the necessity – and the advantages to the private sector – of being a part of this process. Whether you look at demographic trends, labour shortages or access to resources on Aboriginal peoples’ lands, it is in businesses’ best interest to get on board.

This certainly isn’t the first time I have reached out to the business community like this… last year I spoke at a number of Chambers of Commerce, including Brandon and Calgary… as well, I spoke at the Canadian Club in Toronto. The message has been consistent and is more important than ever… Making Positive Change Together.

Our government wholeheartedly agrees with the title of your forum – ‘Prosperity through Partnerships.’

Working in close partnership with Aboriginal people, we really can capitalize on their contributions to the economy and the life of our country. Most important, we can ensure they share equally in all that Canada has to offer.

Since becoming Indian Affairs Minister I have visited Aboriginal communities from coast to coast to coast. I’ve consistently met wonderful people in my travels. And I’ve seen some incredible success stories, where business is booming and citizens are thriving – in New Brunswick, Ontario, BC…. But it is true that they are the exception, not the rule. The plight of far too many Aboriginal people in this country is still deplorable – and that needs to change.

I am not going to rhyme off a lot of statistics. Suffice to say, in just about every category – from disease and disability to drop-out rates, to unemployment, suicide and mortality numbers – Aboriginal people fare far worse than other Canadians.

These people aren’t just numbers to me. I have seen the faces behind those statistics and heard their stories. I’ve witnessed the wasted opportunities, the despair and frustration – frustration I share.

This situation is patently unacceptable in a country as rich and resourceful as Canada. As much as it is morally repugnant, we are squandering the immense potential of Aboriginal people who have so much to offer our country.

We are talking about the fastest-growing population in the country – a whole new generation of workers at a time when we’re confronting the labour market impacts of an aging population. A young population, with the growing benefits of land claims and self-government agreements that provide new revenues, land and a resource base upon which to build a vibrant economy.

A population that’s eager to stake a claim to a better future. All they need is a hand up instead of the traditional hand out. Through our government’s historic and growing partnerships, and strategic investments – this is underway. And Aboriginal people are frequently the first to say they want to put an end to the cycle of dependency that keeps them in poverty.

And not many say it like Chief Clarence Louie of the very successful Osoyoos Band out in BC… he’s also the Chair of the National Aboriginal Economic Development Board – a very important board that is helping us shape a new Aboriginal Ec-Dev Framework. I will actually quote him a couple of times this afternoon… in reference to jobs on-reserve, he says: “If your biggest employer is the band office, something’s wrong.”

Ladies and gentlemen… Enough is enough. We have heard endless talk by previous governments, and seen a lot of hand-wringing and righteous indignation. What’s been missing – is action.

Our government is focused on getting things done and getting on with building that better future. Not only because it is the right thing to do. It’s the smart thing to do. Making Positive Change Together must continue.

That means taking risks and trying new things. We are not afraid to take an unflinching look at what has – or, more often, what has not – been done in the past. We approach Aboriginal issues with a willingness to break taboos and confront the uncomfortable truth of our relationship with Aboriginal Canadians.

Nothing better illustrates this than the Prime Minister’s apology to former students of Indian Residential Schools – June 11th of last year.

The apology forms part of a more comprehensive settlement agreement which has processed more than 79,000 Common Experience Payment cases over the past couple of years. And I hope to have some good news soon regarding the appointment of three new commissioners for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

But the apology and compensation is not the end of the story. By closing a sad chapter in Canada’s history, we sent a clear signal that we are committed to opening a new page in Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal relations. And this year, instead of a National Day of Action, Aboriginal Leaders are holding a National Day of Reconciliation…. June 11th. In two short years – a Day of Action has turned into a Day of Reconciliation.

I am especially proud of our Government’s success in securing human rights protection for Aboriginal Canadians by amending the Canadian Human Rights Act. This Government took the decisive steps necessary to close a 30 year old gap – 30 years too many, for those living on reserves without full legal access to the protections under the CHRA.

Driven by that same spirit, we’re taking action to protect Matrimonial Real Property Rights… to ensure women and children are protected following marriage or relationship breakdowns. Provincial and territorial laws ensure that assets of the marriage are distributed equitably between husbands and wives … off-reserve. But on reserve…those protections don’t exist and far too often the result is homelessness for women and children.

This legislative gap continues to affect women, children and families – daily. And we need the opposition parties in Parliament to support this important legislation – these important human rights… under Bill C-8.

Human rights are truly helping make safer communities… but so too are on and off reserve police forces. Look at the drug busts in Kanasatake, Quebec two weeks go. Making First Nations communities healthier will also be achieved by cleaning up drug and gang problems, this is very important – and that is no different than a community here in Ottawa or in Vancouver. …. Making Positive Change Together.

After years and years of unfulfilled promises, our government is delivering on longstanding obligations to Aboriginal Canadians.

We are settling treaty land entitlement claims. We have converted 315,000 acres of land in Manitoba and Saskatchewan to reserve status – a 42% increase in just three years.

And we are finally getting treaties in place in British Columbia. After decades of uncertainty, we have ratified the first modern treaty in the province with the Tsawwassen First Nation. This settlement – the first ever settled land claim in a major urban centre – is a real game changer. Set in Vancouver, it creates unprecedented opportunities for partnerships with the economic mainstream that will bring benefits to the entire Lower Mainland region and to Canada as a whole.

In addition to creating legal certainty over land ownership, these agreements provide First Nations with financial and natural resources to launch business initiatives, many of them in partnership with industry. They can also invest in their people to increase their capacity to play a role in the economy. Making Positive Change Together.

Our action plan on Specific Claims is another historic breakthrough. It’s historic not just because First Nations have been waiting 60 years to see this progress. But also because it is the result of a Joint Canada-Assembly of First Nations Specific Claims Task Force. Many of our initiatives are led or co-directed by Aboriginal groups, reinforcing our commitment to inclusion.

We have set up an arm’s length Specific Claims Tribunal to make binding decisions on unresolved claims – some of them dating back generations. We want to see these issues settled, once and for all.

Why have we chosen this path? AFN National Chief Phil Fontaine said it best: “When there is political will, we can always find ways to resolve our differences.”

Outside of that process…. We are still getting strong results… setting records in settled claims for 07-08 and 08-09. over 170 claims settled in those two years.

The Specific Claims Tribunal reflects our determination to get to the root of problems, fix them and move on so we can build a better Canada together. The road forward out of dependency is already being paved.

We believe in developing innovative solutions, instead of pouring money into futile programs that don’t produce results.

Our recent audit of post-secondary education is a perfect example. We wanted to know why, when we are investing more than $300 million every year to make a university or college education accessible to Aboriginal youth, Canadians are not getting a better bang for their buck. We are now engaged in a thorough renovation of these programs to correct flaws in their design.

Also, we just announced 10 new schools and 3 major upgrades under our Economic Action Plan… Yes, we know more is needed and we will deliver. But for years First Nations leaders were fed lip service… but no more, we are putting real action behind our commitments.

We are also giving Aboriginal communities a direct voice in decisions about the education offered to their children. We reached historic tripartite education agreements with Aboriginal communities and Provinces… British Columbia and New Brunswick are already working with us and others want to follow.

The benefits of this approach are clear. Tripartite education agreements give First Nation communities greater control over education. These agreements put in place high standards for students and teachers. And they make sure schools are held accountable for the academic results of students.

But the best reason for this approach was voiced by Chief David Peter-Paul of Pabineau First Nation in New Brunswick. Chief Peter-Paul bluntly stated that these forward-thinking agreements “ensure that our First Nation children are better educated and prepared to meet the challenges of the 21st Century.” I couldn’t agree more.

And there’s more, I recently signed an agreement with ITK – the national Inuit organization in Canada, representing four Inuit regions – to develop a joint strategy to improve educational outcomes for Inuit students as well. This four-government, 14-party agreement is another major step forward.

Like I said, no more lip service…. This is what Six Nations Chief Bill Montour said in response to a question from the Brantford Expositor at an announcement for a new water treatment plant in his community – something they had been waiting years for: “I know I worked with the department of Indian Affairs through the Liberal government. But I’ve expressed a lot of disappointment in the attempts of the Liberal government to move forward. But it’s my experience working with the Conservative government that you should go at it from a business perspective. It usually gets done.”

And just a quick note on water…. When we took office, we inherited 193 high risk water systems. After our Action Plan on Water was launched and our strategic investments, that number has been cut by well over half. Making Positive Change Together.

Our focus on vitally important items like education and water underscores that we are zeroing in on priority issues where we can make a difference. We realize we can’t tackle each and every problem that requires attention, throw lots of money at them and think these matters will be magically resolved.

We know you get a much better return on investment when you focus on bite-size problems, work in partnership to come up with practical solutions, and ensure you take realistic steps that have a measurable impact on the lives of Aboriginal people.

A program founded on the simple yet profound belief that the best social support we can offer Aboriginal Canadians is helping them get jobs – is the Aboriginal Skills and Employment Partnership program.

ASEP brings together people from Aboriginal groups, private-sector companies (like Cameco) and provincial and territorial organizations to make sure Aboriginal workers get the training and acquire the skills they need to take advantage of emerging employment opportunities in a variety of industries. Industries like yours: mining, construction, fisheries, tourism, hydro development and public infrastructure.

To ensure the long-term viability of this forward-thinking program, the Government will invest in it an additional $100 million over the next three years. And that’s not all.

Canada’s Economic Action Plan sets aside an additional $200 million for skills and training to make sure Aboriginal people are ready and able to seize employment opportunities. And I’m not only talking about youth or First Nations residents living on reserve. As one example, work is underway in Saskatchewan to prepare Aboriginal adults on welfare for a range of employment opportunities in the province’s growing economy.

Roughly 50 percent of Aboriginal Canadians now live in our larger cities – half of them in 13 cities sprinkled throughout the western half of the country. We need to ensure this fast-growing population has access to adequate housing, quality education and a meaningful job.

That’s the motivation behind the Métis Nation Accord that I signed last September with the President of the Métis National Council. This is an agreement to work together to explore the federal government’s responsibilities to Métis people. We are funding ways to improve their lives and livelihoods so they, too, can contribute their full potential to our country.

At the same time, we want Canadians to gain a deeper understanding of the immense contribution that Métis people have made in the success of our country. That’s why, as a first step, we’ve partnered with the Métis National Council to launch a website that enables Canadians to appreciate the vital role played by Métis soldiers, sailors and airmen during the First and Second World Wars.

Métis veterans will finally have a venue through which they can tell their stories of heroism and sacrifice. It’s an important step forward, not just for the veterans and their families, but also for all Canadians. These are stories we all need to hear. We are Making Positive Change Together.

Our Economic Action Plan includes a total of $1.4 Billion in new spending on issues like these that matter the most to Aboriginal people and that will generate the greatest benefits for all Canadians.

These funds will underwrite the construction of new housing, schools, water systems, and health clinics – the foundation of social and economic progress.

The Action Plan dedicated $400 million for First Nations, and another $200 million for the North, for home renovations, the construction of new housing and associated activities, like lot servicing.

These housing investments represent the latest in a series of actions designed to increase access to adequate housing on-reserve, from construction to renovation projects, and it will also stimulate economic activity in First Nation communities… something at the very heart of our Action Plan.

And we are investing over $500 million in critical infrastructure – from drinking water and waste water facilities, to health and policing facilities, to roads and bridges. Infrastructure investment is vital to the quality of life of people living in Aboriginal communities. It is also essential to attract investment and to link those communities with the mainstream economy.

What matters is not how much we are investing but how we are investing these funds. If there is a single defining feature of our approach it’s that we don’t waste time on unproductive and unsuccessful processes. We are doing a lot of things differently – to get better results.

For instance, we’ve embarked on innovative partnerships such as the First Nation Market Housing Fund, a joint initiative of my department and the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. The $300 million fund enables members of First Nation communities to access capital for home construction, repair and renovation, but does so in a way that respects the principle of communal ownership of reserve lands.

Last spring marked the official opening of the fund, and several First Nation communities have been approved for housing loans backed by the fund. We’re going to continue to work with partners in these and many more First Nation communities—both to advance these new commitments and to further implement the Market Housing Fund so that more members of First Nation communities can realize their dreams of owning their own homes. In fact, over the next 10 years, we expect this fund will make it possible for us to create up to 25,000 new housing units for Canadians who live on reserve.

We are also trying new things when it comes to child and family services. As we pledged in the residential schools apology, never again will we lose a generation of innocent children.

Instead of the traditional government or Ottawa knows best approach, we are turning to willing partners – Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal in both the public and private sectors – to find workable solutions to longstanding problems such as this. We have 3 Child and Family Service tripartites…. in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia and two more should be finalized soon. These tripartites are allowing all involved to move to a more enhanced prevention-based approach … Making Positive Change Together.

We are also working with willing partners in the private sector – P3’s are another positive. We’ve partnered with Westcap Management Ltd. and Aboriginal communities in Saskatchewan to develop a new initiative that will help communities establish resource and energy businesses.

Also in Saskatchewan, we combined with the Affinity Credit Union to provide debt financing to First Nation businesses that hold assets on reserves. We did the same in Manitoba through a partnership with the Assiniboine Credit Union.

We need more Aboriginal leaders to be open to ideas like these. While there is a new crop of business-savvy, young leaders ready to take on these kinds of partnerships, we can’t wait a generation to produce better results for all Aboriginal Canadians. We need to see a greater willingness, by a lot more communities and their leaders, to join the economic mainstream.

Back to Chief Louie for a moment…. Some Aboriginal leaders are afraid they could lose the culture and traditions in their communities if they venture into a new way of thinking… an honest concern, but one that can also be damaging… to that Chief Louie says: “You’re going to lose your language and culture faster in poverty than you will in economic development.”

Columnist Doug Cuthand, who wrote a couple of weeks ago about Chief Louie agreed, saying: “This is absolutely true. As our people have grown in affluence, we have seen a growth in awareness of culture and traditions. Poverty has the opposite effect.”

I am not going to pretend that government has all the answers. I know as well as you do that we don’t have the market cornered when it comes to good ideas. Sometimes the best way we can help is to get out of the way and let business get on with doing business. Be my guest!!

I also know that we cannot spend our way to Nirvana. As a recent opinion piece in the Edmonton Journal noted, $100 billion in federal spending in the last decade on only half the Aboriginal population hasn’t measurably bettered their lives.

Public financing and support is only part of the long-term solution to the complex challenges facing Aboriginal Canadians. Fiscal realism dictates that we invest wisely, where we will produce the best results, but recognize the limits of our influence.

A final reference to the Cuthand column – and this writer is First Nations … he says:

“So how do we change our societies to take advantage of future economic development? Politicians talk about economic development as if it exists in a vacuum. However, real development begins with the people. You can have all the opportunity in the world, but unless you have the right leadership and motivated people, you are beaten even before you begin.

Economic development starts with successful self-governance that leads by looking at the big picture. Too many band councils micro-manage and run businesses based on political rather than business decisions.”

n the end, this has to be a societal change. All Canadians, from all walks of life and all parts of the country, have to start seeing Aboriginal Canadians with new eyes. Open minds and hearts wouldn’t hurt either.

Ultimately, the power for change rests with all of us. We will only move forward when we all step up and commit to Making Positive Change Together.

And some of the most important actors in this unfolding story are here today in this room. Many of you have already demonstrated that you not only get it – you want to get ON with it. You are both leaders and champions of the kind of change I have been talking about today.

I applaud you. And I challenge you to encourage others in the business community to start seeing the incredible potential that Aboriginal Canadians have to offer to our economy and to our country. Your credibility will go a long way to help us achieve our shared goals of a more prosperous future for all Canadians.

I believe there is every reason for optimism – and I am sure this forum will point many of you towards more success. I wish you all a productive forum here this week.

Aboriginal people are hungry for change and are actively taking control of their destiny to create a better future for themselves and their children. We are helping, and so are you.

Governments at all levels are working collaboratively as never before. The private sector is seizing the tremendous potential of new partnerships with Aboriginal communities.

Most important, our Conservative government has made it abundantly clear: there is no turning back. Never again will we witness the waste and missed opportunities that marked so much of our past.

We have a clear plan. A partnered and strategic plan. We are executing it to produce measurable results. We are getting the job done and we are doing it right.

We are well on our way to a better and more prosperous future for Aboriginal Canadians – and all Canadians.

Making Positive Change Together.

Thank you.

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