Dreamcatcher Fund Gala

Speaking notes for the Right Honourable Paul Martin P.C., M.P. | Hamilton, Ontario | October 24, 2007

Right Hon. Paul Martin (LaSalle—Émard, Lib.): In January, 2006, the people of Canada generously decided to give me some time off. I went home. I puttered around the farm a bit, and a month later – Sheila decided that I should get the heck out of the house and back to work.

Since then, I have spent much of my time doing what many of you have done for years – seeking ways to improve the lives and the prospects of our country’s first peoples. Indeed that’s what the Dreamcatcher Fund is all about.

It is an inspiring undertaking – a project that has already made a positive difference in the lives of so many youngsters in Ontario, and which will eventually make its mark right across Canada. This is important and it is why we are here tonight.

Canadians naturally tend to think of our country as having been born at Confederation. Each Canada Day, we celebrate our national birthday with great pride - 140 years this past July.

But in reality this home of ours is a much older place. Its human history dates back to time immemorial; countless lives passed in communion with nature, and with a profound respect for a vast and giving terrain. In times of plenty and in times of scarcity, the First Nations - built societies, ruled and governed, traded and shared. They built systems of care and buried their dead. The history of this northern land runs through their camps and villages, their hunting grounds, their sacred places.

When the Europeans arrived on these shores, there was, for a while, a measure of equality and at the best of times a kind of kinship. The settlers saw this ancient world as new. There were alliances made with the First Nations. There was trading to be done, villages to be built – and a hard land made somewhat easier by working together.

But co-operation would ultimately give way to conflict and to change. As years and decades passed, survival for the settlers was more easily assured. The fur trade waned; wars – first between the French and British, then the British and Americans – were ended and military alliances were no longer important.

Thus new governments began to regard the First Nations with indifference, or worse. Treaties were made, only to be broken. Promises were made, only to be forgotten. The policies of the day – schooling, as only one example - mandated assimilation. Land was taken away. The traditional economy, its trading patterns, and systems of governance that had survived for eons were all but wiped out.

For the First Nations, there was despair and a sense of powerlessness that became chronic. Over time their families and descendents became caught up in a cycle of poverty and dependence, a cycle that endures to this day, afflicting one generation after another, robbing too many of their potential.

All of us in this room know the beauty and majesty of our great country. We are rightfully proud of our place in the world. We have had great success in the past and the future looks bright. But regrettably, any honest analysis of our progress, and any honest reckoning of our history, would show that Canada’s indigenous people have been quite simply, shut out of this success.

The plight of Aboriginal society is our national shame. And therein lies our challenge – a challenge that demands the attention of governments, Aboriginal leaders, business, activists and all Canadians. We know the history and we know that must not be the future.

The question is – what will we do about it? How will we respond?

First of all, we need to get past the misinformation and myths that too often shape the perception of Canadian Aboriginal reality.

Let me deal with just two of these.

First: a common refrain is that we already spend too much money on Aboriginal issues. The reality is at odds with that. As some of you may know, I’m involved in a pilot project at an Aboriginal high school in Thunder Bay and other similar projects are in the planning stage. The goals are to reduce the dropout rate and give Aboriginal students an introduction to business.

Before doing so, I traveled across the country, saw a lot of schools, met with students and teachers. And let me tell you: anyone who says the government is spending too much just hasn’t seen the Aboriginal educational system first hand.

This was brought home to me quite graphically several months ago. I asked at a band meeting what the Aboriginal leadership did with all the money the federal government sent it for education. The answer came quickly and it came not from a member of the Band Council but from a member of the Ontario Ministry of Education. “All what money?” she said. “Ontario spends almost twice as much per capita on the students in its jurisdiction as Ottawa does on reserve.” “Almost twice as much!” she repeated.

We are not spending too much, certainly not on education. We are spending too little. And generations of Aboriginal Canadians, many of whom received or are receiving a sub-par education, are paying the price.

The second myth arises from the so-called lack of emphasis or concern, on governance. Is there a problem? Yes there is. But it’s not a lack of emphasis or concern by First Nation’s leaders.

At one of the very first meetings I ever had with Phil Fontaine, long before he became Grand Chief, he raised the issue. So have a number of the other chiefs and countless members of their bands I’ve met across this province and the country.

Are there chiefs and councils out there who aren’t up to the job? Of course there are and they should get out of the way. But there are also many more Aboriginal leaders who are doing tremendous work in the face of terrible odds. I’ve met with them, seen what they’re up against and marveled at their determination.

Yes, many still have a ways to go in terms of establishing the kind of openness, and transparency that’s expected in modern governance. But let’s not forget that only in recent years have we started building the institutions that give indigenous leaders the capacity to effectively do their jobs.

The issue of accountability is one of decisive importance and no one has any doubt that it must be visibly accelerated if young Aboriginal Canadians are to gain the confidence that the solutions to their problems can come from within, as they must.

But let us also understand that any lack of accountability that exists is fundamentally a legacy of the Indian Actwhich made it clear from the beginning that Chiefs and Band Councils were primarily accountable to the government in Ottawa not to their own people. Indeed, the outlawing of the potlatch in British Columbia for instance, was actually an attempt, conscious or otherwise, to block accountability by band leadership to clan members.

For this reason we must support the work of the AFN and each and every one of its members individually and collectively who seek to ensure full accountability, but we must do so, not just because it is mandated by some piece of government legislation but because it is an intrinsic element of the inherent right of self government.

So much for the misconceptions - Now let’s talk about the future.

Boil down the challenges facing Aboriginal Canadians; line up the areas in which government must act; then ask yourself: Where can we do the most good? The answer from every Aboriginal leader I’ve talked to is immediate and unequivocal. It’s education! That is the key that unlocks the door to a better future. And what is required is nothing less than a complete overhaul of many of the primary and secondary school systems on reserve and in many other Aboriginal communities. This is a significant undertaking – but that doesn’t make it any the less imperative.

As a nation, we need to understand that within the framework of today’s challenge lies the demographic seeds of significant opportunity. Indigenous Canadians represent the youngest and fastest-growing segment of our population. At a time when Canada is staring down the barrel of a looming labour shortage, we see that half of indigenous Canadians today are under the age of 25 – and that Canada’s working-age Aboriginal population is poised to grow at three times the national average during the next decade.

For business, this represents new customers and consumers but even more importantly, it represents a potential pool of skilled and productive talent at a time when Canada needs it most.

That being said; to succeed, to enable young Aboriginal men and women to pursue their education – we can’t rely only on the band councils and government. They may have the prime responsibility but the private sector has to come to the table as well. For instance it’s important that corporate leaders continue to provide scholarships so that more Aboriginal students can attend post-secondary education. It’s important – but not nearly sufficient.

To put it plainly, the pressing question in many Aboriginal families is not – how will we afford to send our children to university? It is how will we convince them to finish high school?

Almost half of Aboriginal Canadians don’t have a high-school diploma. In the race of life therefore, too many begin at a tremendous educational disadvantage.

For this reason, there is a role to be played by business leaders – in fact not only a role to be played, but a responsibility to be met. How? – Well one way would be for business leaders to actively mentor young Aboriginal Canadians – so that they develop the mindset required to seek the future, education can provide; so that they become attuned to the possibilities of the modern economy, possibilities so many feel are not currently open to them.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. There are very few Aboriginal accountants, actuaries or engineers in Canada. But what if we identified young students with a talent for math and did so in grades 7, 8, 9 and 10. What if accounting, actuarial or engineering firms took a more active role in mentoring and encouraging youngsters in those early years, giving them internships later on when they’re old enough. No one expects one businessman or woman to single handedly change the world – but through mentoring you can certainly change one young man’s world, or one young woman’s world, and in so doing you can play a part in changing many more lives for the better.

Leadership begets more leaders. Success for one breeds success for another, and for more beyond that. There is such promise in the power of example – for it is certainly easier to find your way to the top, when the trail has already been blazed.

And then what about afterwards? What about after graduation? Improving education, upping the graduation rate – those are urgent challenges. But there’s another challenge that goes hand in hand with that: it’s an economy that works.

While there are a growing number of highly successful Aboriginal entrepreneurs in Canada, the ratio is distressingly low compared to the Canadian average. Sure, the numbers have been improving slightly. But the presence of entrepreneurs within indigenous communities is still meager – especially when you consider that, before the Europeans came, the entrepreneurial spirit was deeply ingrained within First Nation’s life.

What must we do to turn this around? Well, I’ll tell you one thing.

We must take the prejudice out of Canadian capital markets!

We must bring the resources of the Canadian business community to bear, such that it seeks out and nurtures budding entrepreneurial talent and invests in their ventures.

Too often when I make the case to the Canadian business community, the response is – “But Paul, we already hire Aboriginals.” – Well that’s good, but it isn’t good enough. And it won’t be good enough until there is a multitude of Aboriginal entrepreneurs saying to the rest of us, “Move out of the way – we’ll take over now”.

Too optimistic – some may say. No, it’s not, its how the rest of society succeeds.

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I started out my remarks tonight talking about promises made, and myths that endure. I then talked about the future – about education and entrepreneurship.

Let me close now, by joining the issues, not forgetting the past of promises broken, but focusing on the future and where solutions lie.

The Kelowna Accord was important. For instance it recognized the need for a major overhaul of the Aboriginal education system and provided the money that the system lacked. It brought the territories provinces and Aboriginal leadership to the table together, an education table, where they have more knowledge and experience than the federal government ever could.

However, Kelowna did something else as well – something every bit as important as its targets for education, health, housing and clean water. It recognized for one of the few times in our history: that no answer can be arrived at by the federal government unilaterally; that no lasting solution can be imposed from without; that answers can only be found within the wisdom of Aboriginal communities themselves; that solutions can only be the work of partnership.

And since Kelowna, we have learned once again, something that we have learned and relearned without it seeming to stick and that is – governments should keep their word.

Along with the residential schools settlement, the Kelowna Accord was to be the beginning of a new era. Aboriginal leadership, provinces and territories, the federal government – all on the same page, sharing the same goals. It was the first time that all governments joined as one and said, “Let’s work together.” It was the first time that all governments joined as one and said, “Enough.”

The day we agreed to the accord, the day we reached consensus, all of us at that table truly believed that we had achieved something for the ages; that future generations of Canadians would equate that day with the beginning of a new way, the dawn of a promising future, the time and place when everything began to change for the better. The accord wasn’t just a commitment to a better quality of life, it was a symbol of a new way of working together. A genuine partnership delivering genuine progress.

When the government changed, the Conservatives decided to ignore Kelowna, to dismiss it out of hand, to break the word of the government of Canada to our nation’s first peoples.

That was a mistake – and like a lot of Canadians, I’m not ready to give up. I will never give up because the accord is the instrument through which we began to change what so desperately needs to be changed. And I know that at some point, if not now then later, the spirit of Kelowna will prevail. Why? – Because Canadians are a fair and just people.

And because, while the negligence of the past should be reason enough for governments to do what they can, it is the future that lends even greater urgency to the task.

We are, within the global family, a small nation among giants. We now compete with many countries whose population’s number in the hundreds of millions in comparison with our thirty two million. The modern world demands a more productive Canada. A Canada that can ill afford to squander the potential and talent of even a single one of its citizens - a Canada that will benefit tremendously from an Aboriginal population that participates fully in our nation’s prosperity. Canada has always strived to make its progressive voice heard in the world – as an advocate for human rights, for the alleviation of poverty and discrimination, for the raising up of the downtrodden and the dispossessed. These are noble values, and it is our hope that by pursuing and promoting them internationally, we will define ourselves to others as we know ourselves to be. But what does it say about our commitment to those values when they are not fulfilled within our borders? How can we present ourselves as an example to the world, when the world can see how we treat those at home who most need a measure of social justice and the opportunity for a better life?

About three years ago, retracing steps I took as a young man, Sheila and I traveled 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 – Inuit, Métis, First Nations.

But what became familiar to us was the welcome – the smiling faces of the children in each community. As we walked the streets a parade 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 us everything and show us everything in existence.

But there was a counterpoint to these wonderful moments: for the elders with whom we met, too often painted another picture. One of an intolerable gap between the hopeful promise of youth and the ultimate experience of Aboriginal adulthood. The elders had seen the cycle of despair repeat itself too many times. They would tell us that the infectious optimism of youth will eventually give way to hard realities and cold truths, and as things stand – the elders are right. But in this case they don’t want to be right!

We hold within our power the ability to make these children the first generation of real and positive change: The generation that stays in school; the generation that is given the tools and the opportunity to succeed; the generation that breaks the cycle of poverty; the Aboriginal generation that builds the great companies; that discovers the new truths of science; that writes the great music; that paints the great paintings. Think of the talent we can unlock, if only we act!

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 prosperity. Ours must be a society in which all citizens of Canada – Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal alike – stand shoulder-to-shoulder; equal in opportunity, in dignity and in quality of life.

Ours must be a country where wrongs are righted, where despair fades away in the face of hope, where we remember the mistakes of the past in order to build a better future. That’s why we are here tonight. That’s why we congratulate all of you who seek to make the dreams of the Dreamcatcher a new reality.

Thank you!