Former PM attempts to inspire Mi'kmaq youth in Eskasoni

PUBLICATION: Cape Breton Post | DATE: 2006.04.26 | BYLINE: Tanya Collier Macdonald | DATELINE: Eskasoni

No longer constrained by having to deliver a political message, Paul Martin masterfully engaged Mi'kmaq high school students Tuesday in a lively exchange about their hopes and ambitions.

The former Liberal prime minister grabbed a microphone from its stand and walked casually across the stage and into a crowd of about 120 students gathered at Eskasoni High School.

"It would be arrogant of me to come in and talk to a bunch of Mi'kmaq kids and say, well, let me tell you about your life," said Martin.

He opened the discussion with a history lesson dating back 600 years to illustrate that First Nations and European settlers once lived with equality. However, that thriving relationship soured and aboriginals were pushed into "smaller corners."

In the past few years, positive outcomes like the Kelowna agreement, aimed at improving living conditions in First Nations communities, is showing promise.

"I think it's only the beginning," said Martin. "I think we have that momentum, we're on a roll, but boy, we can't afford to let a pebble get in the way.

"Fundamentally, it comes down to the education of these kids in grade school and high school."

The visit to Eskasoni was the first public outing for the Liberal MP for LaSalle-Emard since his minority government lost at the polls in January.

"When you look at Canada and the world, we are in a terrific position," he said. "There is no excuse that the youngest and fastest growing segment of our population is also the poorest."

Since his government was unseated, Martin spent some time in Africa. He returned to Canadian soil with a personal desire to empower aboriginal youth.

"You can do almost anything," Martin told his young audience, many who wore baseball caps, baggy jeans and chomped on gum as their eyes stayed focused on Martin.

"But what can you do to make that happen?"

Students responded by saying that they want their treaty rights addressed, better health care and improvements in education. When additional funding was deemed a solution by many in the crowd, Martin shifted the conversation back to what they could do as individuals.

Martin said there is a shortage of doctors and nurses across Canada, but if no one chooses to enrol in medical school, the positions won't be filled.

"If you don't become doctors and nurses, the shortage will continue," he said. "Money is not the only answer. It's part of the answer."

Martin's enthusiasm did seem to spread. Especially to one student who asked Martin if he believed a Mi'kmaq student could one day lead the country.

"Absolutely," said Martin. "I hope it happens in my lifetime. Why can't you aim as high as anyone else in the world."

He did warn, although, that the job doesn't come with a long-term contract.

Dexter Johnson, a Grade 11 student, said Martin's presentation was "excellent. I feel more confident. I'll probably go to college."

Everett Paul said he was inspired. Paul is a Grade 12 student preparing for university and wants to be a police officer.

"He said you can be anything you want."

Principal John Googoo said about 40 per cent of students at Eskasoni High School will drop out before graduation - most quitting in Grade 11. Although the numbers seem bleak, Googoo said the rate was about 75 per cent when students travelled outside the community to complete their education.

He hopes Martin's message will inspire the students to stay in school.

As for other ambitions, Martin said he plans to stay busy.

"I'm going to be heavily involved internationally but I'm going to make sure I spend at least half of my time on Canadian issues and the main Canadian issue I'm going to work on is this one here.

"I always felt strongly about it. I felt strongly about it before I went into public life. I'm just going to keep it up."

tcmacdonald@cbpost.com