Notes for an Address by the Honourable Chuck Strahl at the Union of Ontario Indians Annual General Assembly
Thank you for your warm welcome and generous hospitality. I am very glad that you invited me to take part in your annual general assembly so I could visit this beautiful part of the world. I am truly honoured to be a visitor to Whitefish River, a place of vision and dreams, within the Anishinabek Nation.I’ve recently learned that this region is home to one of the oldest Anishinaabe communities in the country – Sheguindah – whose residents can trace their roots back 9,000 years. What more appropriate setting for a meeting of the oldest political organization in Ontario?
Not only is the Union of Ontario Indians one of the oldest Aboriginal political organizations around, it is also one of the most productive, as your ambitious agenda underscores.
Today I have come:
– To pay tribute to the outstanding leaders that you are and the tremendous work you do on behalf of your 42 First Nations;
– To highlight recent Government of Canada initiatives that are improving the lives and livelihoods of Aboriginal Canadians; and,
– To stress the importance of strong partnerships in ensuring ongoing progress.
I have high praise for the Union’s progress in advancing your goal of self-government in the areas of Governance and Education. The signing of the Anishinabek Nation Agreement-in-Principle on Governance in February 2007 was an important step forward on that path. As one of the largest and more advanced self government agreements in Canada, it represents the interests of 42 First Nation communities and approximately 53,000 people.
It establishes the groundwork for your First Nations to adopt new governance institutions and structures – based on your culture and values – that will be more responsive and accountable to your communities.
Another promising aspect of the current negotiations is our joint effort to reach a final agreement with respect to the exercise of Education Jurisdiction. With these provisions in place, you will be able to provide your children and youth with both hope and the opportunity to achieve their dreams and goals for the future.
While these final agreements are still in negotiation, I am very encouraged by the determination on both sides of the table to reach final agreements. Over the coming weeks and months, the leadership of the Grand Council Chief and you, the Chiefs in Assembly, will be key to unleashing the enormous potential of these Agreements in your communities.
My most sincere congratulations on your thoughtful and strategic approach to self-government planning — your success will serve as inspiration to other First Nations across Canada.
Our government is also working hard with First Nations, such as yours, on our shared priorities. 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.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in Prime Minister Harper’s recent historic apology to former residents of Indian residential schools. This is an important step in the ongoing journey toward healing and reconciliation.
Our government recognizes the apology will not take away the pain that has resulted from the Indian Residential Schools system. However, it demonstrates that we remain committed to a fair and lasting resolution to the Indian Residential Schools legacy and to moving forward in partnership with Aboriginal people across Canada.
A critical element of this reconciliation process is the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The work being led by Justice Harry Laforme presents a unique opportunity to increase awareness among all Canadians about the Indian Residential Schools system. I am confident that it will be a positive step towards forging a new relationship between Aboriginal peoples and other Canadians.
These historic breakthroughs make it clear that, in collaboration with you, our government wants to make a meaningful difference in the lives of the First Peoples. We have been equally clear that we are not interested in rhetoric — we believe in action. Together, we have moved forward on multiple fronts, rectifying past wrongs and creating opportunities for a better future.
Our government’s greatest legacy will undoubtedly be our success in accelerating specific claims resolution and bringing greater fairness to the claims process and speeding up claims resolution to the benefit of all Canadians.
The Specific Claims Action Plan, launched by the Prime Minister in June 2007 with the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, signifies our joint commitment to collaborate closely on ongoing work associated with specific claims.
We have now reached a milestone in the Action Plan, passing significant legislation which creates an independent Specific Claims Tribunal. First Nations now have the option of going before the independent tribunal for a binding decision if their claim is rejected for negotiations or if negotiations fail.
Another important issue we have championed is the protection of human rights — something that virtually every other Canadian can take for granted under the Canadian Human Rights Act.
We’ve passed ground-breaking legislation to give full human rights protection to on-reserve First Nations, something you have been denied for 30 years. And we have introduced the Family Homes on Reserves and Matrimonial Interests or Rights Act, to ensure a fair outcome for First Nation members when a relationship goes bad. Our commitment to empowering individuals and protecting the vulnerable is also evident in our significant new investments for family violence prevention programs and services.
We understand that the best way for individuals to succeed and for economies to prosper is through education. That’s why in Budget 2008 our government dedicated $70 million to improve First Nations education outcomes through enhanced accountability and by encouraging greater partnership and alignment with the provincial education systems.
To support job creation, legislation is being implemented in areas such as commercial and industrial development on reserve, land management, oil and gas and monies management, taxation, and financial and statistical management. These important tools are enabling First Nations across Canada to better manage and expand their local economies. While this is a good start, new members of the National Aboriginal Economic Development Board have been appointed to look at what more needs to be done and how to improve our economic development programs. I wish to acknowledge and recognize your representative, Dawn Madahbee, for her appointment to the Board, and for the work that she has done and will continue to do to advance economic development opportunities for all Aboriginal peoples.
Our government is placing an equal emphasis on improving living conditions for Aboriginal people. We have taken decisive action to ensure that all First Nations reserves have access to safe drinking water. Real progress has been made and tangible results achieved. For instance, in 2006, 21 communities were identified as priorities: today, only six communities remain on that list. And the number of First Nations with high-risk water systems has been reduced by more than half. Certainly 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.
Our government understands how important home ownership is in this country. We want individuals living on reserve to have a similar opportunity to own their own homes – homes suited to their personal housing needs, financial situations and choice. We also recognize that good housing is the foundation of healthy, self-sufficient communities.
That’s why we have created the $300 million First Nations Market Housing Fund, designed to enable First Nations residents to access loans, whether to purchase, or renovate a home or to create new market rental units. We anticipate that over the next 10 years, this Fund will help to build up to 25,000 new homes.
Allow me to congratulate Grand Council Chief Beaucage for his contribution to getting the First Nations Market Housing Fund up and running. I was delighted to take part in the official launch of this new program last month. I am happy to say it’s now open for business.
We have not achieved this progress on our own. Nor am I suggesting that we are satisfied that all the challenges that must be addressed have been met. We all know there is no time to rest on our laurels.
All of these improvements demonstrate our unwavering commitment to work with you and with other governments to nurture healthy and sustainable communities. We are determined to create the necessary conditions to secure a higher standard of living and quality of life for all Aboriginal people so you share in the prosperity that other Canadians enjoy.
Our collective record of achievement I outlined today is testament to the fact that, working in partnership, we are making unprecedented progress.
These successes also illustrate the strength of our partnership. Ours is a relationship built on mutual respect, understanding and the protection of the rights of all citizens.
A strong and equitable relationship will result in stronger First Nations communities and a better Canada for us all.
It is critical that we continue to chart a new course for a respectful and mutually-beneficial future. Based on our impressive track record to date, and the warm reception I have received here today, I have no doubt we will succeed. I look forward to working closely with you to ensure we do.