Canadian Aboriginal and Minority Supplier Council

Speaking notes for the Right Honourable Paul Martin P.C., M.P. | Toronto, Ontario | April 11, 2007

Right Hon. Paul Martin (LaSalle—Émard, Lib.): Thank you for that kind introduction. It is a great pleasure for me to be here with you today and I would like to thank Doug Lord of Xerox for having extended the invitation to speak to you on a subject that is important to me and I know to each of you.

The work of the Canadian Aboriginal and Minority Supplier Council fills a critical need. In providing networks, linkages and opportunities for aboriginal and minority businesses to become established, to grow and to prosper, you are helping some of the most ambitious yet vulnerable members of our society to become independent contributors to our collective prosperity.

The unfortunate reality of our time is that there aren’t enough who see Canada the way you see it. All of us in this room know the beauty and majesty of our great country and are rightfully proud of our place in the world. We have had great success in the past and the future looks pretty bright. But regrettably, any honest analysis of our progress would show that Canada’s aboriginal people and too many in our minority communities have not shared in this success. The reasons for this are not hard to find.

At one of my first federal provincial meetings as prime minister, I proposed to the provincial premiers that we engage in a joint programme with the various professional bodies – doctors, engineers, to speed up the acceptance of foreign credentials. They readily agreed.

Not long after that I appointed a parliamentary secretary to work directly with the professional bodies to encourage them and to ensure that there was no blockage at the federal level. I wish I could tell you that we had achieved great success, but any of you who have taken a taxi recently and who has talked to the PHD behind the wheel knows what a waste of skills continues to this day.

This doesn’t mean that progress has not been made. The labour market and immigration agreements that are now part of the federal provincial landscape will improve the way new Canadians are integrated into the economy, but let’s face it; the support that will facilitate this integration will become even more important as the future unfolds and the fact is as a nation we have much to gain here.

One of the reasons for the success of our economy has been our ability, not just because of geography, but because of our cultural compatibility to penetrate the American market. This obviously will continue to be important, but increasingly, as we all know much of our future success, will depend on our ability, to build on the tenuous footholds we have established in the worlds emerging markets.

This is the reason that one of my first initiatives as Prime minister was to bring about new economic framework agreements with both China and India. These provide an important foundation. But you know as well as I do that important as agreements between governments are, they only work if there is understanding – a cultural understanding between peoples.

This is true in terms of the Canada-US relationship it is equally true in terms of the tremendously exciting world opening up before us outside of North America. That cultural understanding will be built by successive waves of new Canadians coming here to build new lives. It will also be built by the members of CAMSC, you in this room, who are at the leading edge of Canada’s future. And who are doing so much to facilitate the integration of new Canadians and visible minorities into Canada’s growing economy.

If it is important for us to facilitate the entrepreneurship manifested by new Canadians, it is equally important for us to recognize the potential of those whose roots in Canada go back to time immemorial.

The experience of a new comer to our shores and that of a young aboriginal Canadian from a remote community who both arrive in a large Canadian city are not that dissimilar. Neither would likely speak English or French as a first language, neither would have a personal support network or the ability to quickly enter the job market.

About three years ago, retracing steps I took as a young man, I travelled across Canada north of the 60th parallel, visiting communities in each of the three territories. Each stop was distinct – from Pond Inlet, to Tuktoyaktuk, to Watson Lake – every community was unique. But what became familiar to me was the welcome–the smiling faces of children in each community.

As we walked the streets a parade of children would join us, and in their eyes you could see the curiosity and the hopefulness that only the young bring to each day – indeed, as far as I could tell, they wanted to ask me everything and show me everything in existence. Needless to say this was tremendous fun. But when I would sit down with their elders, they would describe a different world from the one I had seen.

They would describe the life of a typical young adult in their community and the challenges that the children I had met would encounter as they grew older. They would describe the high incidence of violence and abuse in the home; of disease and addiction, teen pregnancy and suicide. They would describe the difficulty of keeping their children in school, and how hard it was to send their children away from their community to complete their education.

The sad fact is that Aboriginal Canadians have the worst indicators of health of anyone in our country, the highest rates of diabetes, infant mortality, the highest incidences of AIDS, and the lowest levels of life expectancy. I mention this only to illustrate what we all know to be true, not only in the remote communities of the north, but on too many reserves and in too many cities – that there is an unacceptable gap between the hopeful promise of youth and the experience of Aboriginal adulthood. A gap made even more unacceptable by the fact that aboriginal youth represent the largest segment of Canadian youth and the fastest growing.

We face a moral imperative. In a country as wealthy as ours, a country that is the envy of the world, there is a shameful gap in equality of opportunity – the foundation on which our society is built. The moral issue is unequivocal. The descendents of the people who first occupied this land must have an equal opportunity to work for and to enjoy the benefits of our collective prosperity.

Today, the majority do not – because of gaps in education and skills, in health care and housing and because of limited opportunities for employment.

Put simply, these gaps – between Aboriginal Canadians and other Canadians and between Aboriginal men and women – are not acceptable in the 21st century. They never were acceptable. The gaps must be closed.

This was the purpose of the Kelowna Accord arrived at in November 2005. The Accord committed the Federal Provincial and Territorial governments to develop Implementation Plans, province by province, territory by territory with their Aboriginal partners. Much as we were successful in dealing with the deficit by setting benchmarks, we set out to do the same through the establishment of measurable targets enabling Canadians to hold all of us accountable for progress promised.

The Kelowna agreement was a historic moment. It was the first time governments at all levels and of all political stripes came together with Canada’s Aboriginal leaders to agree on a realistic, accountable, and measurable action plan in terms of health care, education, water housing and economic opportunity.

This should not be a partisan issue and it is beyond belief to me that the current government has decided to walk away from this golden opportunity to do the right thing. But they have.

This is why I recently took the necessary step of introducing legislation in parliament calling on the government to honour the agreement. That private members bill has now passed the House of Commons. Hopefully it will pass the Senate and before long it will become the law of the land.

When it does it will provide an important centrepiece for what you in CAMSC are doing. You are dedicated to supporting entrepreneurship.

We all know that the basis of entrepreneurship is confidence, confidence in yourself - confidence born of decent healthcare, housing, and above all, education. For example at the time of the Kelowna First Ministers Meeting, 44% of Aboriginal people had not completed high school. This compares to 19% for Canada as a whole. Kelowna committed to partially eliminating that gap over the next five years and to totally eliminate it over the next ten years. That would mean 110,000 more aboriginal young people ready to enter either the job market or post secondary education.

Why is this important? It’s important because among all the dismal statistics, there is a very bright light. Without high school, the majority of aboriginal Canadians face the future we too often read about. With a high school diploma, however, a recent Caledon Institute study showed that their actual real life results not only equalled, but surpassed the success ratio of other Canadians.

Canada’s aboriginal population is the fastest growing segment of our population. Ten years from now 40% of Canada’s aboriginal population will be between 20 and 29 years of age and seeking to enter what should be their most productive years as partners in the Canadian economy.

Without concerted attention those prospects will be very bleak yet with concerted attention they have already demonstrated that they will make us all sit up and take notice.

The reason you are all here in this room is that you understand this. Even more to the point you are doing something about it. So as is so often the case, the reward for good work is that somebody is going to ask you to do more.

When the Canadian people spoke a year ago, Sheila made it clear that life with me sitting around the house was not exactly the way she envisaged the future – I’m told I am not the first husband to have been given that message. As a result, when asked to undertake a major project in Africa, I accepted, but continued to be pre-occupied by the inescapable truth that as a Canadian, work in the third world can best be justified if one does not turn ones back on the third world conditions which at best face a majority of aboriginal Canadians within our borders.

So let me tell you about a project I’m involved in. I’ve already mentioned that current statistics demonstrate that young aboriginals who graduate from high school have an achievement ratio that is actually better than the Canadian average. The problem is so few young aboriginal Canadians actually graduate from high school.

The second problem is that while there are a growing number of highly successful aboriginal entrepreneurs in Canada, the ratio is minimal compared to the Canadian average. And yet for those who have studied the pre European contact history of our first nations or indeed that of the fur trade, they will know that entrepreneurship was as much a facet of aboriginal culture as it is to those who run hedge funds today.

The question is how do you rekindle that entrepreneurial fire among young aboriginal Canadians and how do you convince them to stay in school?

Let me now conclude with one final thought. I said at the beginning of these remarks how pleased I was to have the honour to speak to you, a group of business men and women who have come together to help a growing segment of a population who are in need of a leg up. You are doing it because it is the right thing to do and you ask nothing in return. But what you are doing is an essential part of maintaining our standard of living – not just for some Canadians – but for all Canadians. And so there is a huge return to Canada in what you are doing.

It is no secret that we have an ageing population. Indeed, it is a matter of only a couple of decades before 100% of all the new labour force growth in Canada will be the result of immigration or the increase in our aboriginal population. In fact Stats Canada has pinpointed the year this will occur- it’s 2030. Thus it is not only new Canadians, visible minorities or Aboriginal Canadians who benefit, it’s the whole country.

There is another point that flows from this as well. You don’t have to be a demographer, an economist or historian to know that there is a direct correlation. Between the size of a country’s population, or more to the point, the size of its middle class and its success relative to its neighbours.

It is not a coincidence that the United States with its huge middle class has been the dominant economic power of our time. The USA has a domestic market which has not only permitted its companies to develop world class heft at home before they took on the world, but a domestic market that permitted the Americans to innovate and amortize innovation, to make it sing in a way that was simply beyond the means of smaller countries.

We in Canada did well because despite the smaller size of our own domestic market, we made much of the American market our own. And so we shall into the future – but it will be a very different future.

Look to the year 2030, when China and India are mature giants, when the European Union is paying big dividends – and Brazil and Indonesia are the Chinas and India of today. Ask yourself – in that world, will we with 40 million people, be able to hold our own with the economic mega giants of the future? I believe the answer is yes but on one condition – that we don’t waste a drop of our most precious resource = not the resources found deep in the ground but that found in the skills, talents of the youth who walk upon it – regardless of where that youth is from or their colour.

That’s the message I take from CAMSC – its one all Canadians should hear.

Thank you.