First Nations priority for Martin

Bill Phillips | Prince George Free Press | January 11, 2011 4:00 PM

When the Kelowna Accord was scuttled by the Conservative government its architect, former prime minister Paul Martin, continued his fight to help native communities in Canada.

It’s work he’s continuing today.

“I’ve been very actively involved in aboriginal education at the elementary and high school level,” he said Thursday from his home in Ontario.

It’s the topic of a speech he will deliver in Prince George today at the eighth annual Natural Resources Forum and Trade Show at the Civic Centre.

“Aboriginals are the youngest and the fastest growing segment of population,” he said. “ … the high school dropout rates (for aboriginals) are tragic. If you take a look at Canada and our capacity to compete, we can’t afford to waste any talent.”

And he knows what it takes for Canada to be competitive on the world stage. He was prime minister from 2003-2006 and for nine year prior to that he was Canada’s finance minister. He was named the inaugural chair of the Finance Ministers’ G-20. He is involved in poverty alleviation and sustainable development in the Congo, sits on the advisory council of the Coalition for Dialogue on Afric,a and is a member of the International Monetary Fund’s Western Hemisphere Advisory Group.

But his main passion is the Martin Aboriginal Education Initiative and he founded, with his son David, the Capital for Aboriginal Prosperity and Entrepreneurship Fund.

Martin says education for First Nations people is critical to their success. Most jobs require a Grade 12 education so graduation rates have to improve. He added that education for aboriginals has to understand their traditions and understand today’s world.

He wasn’t aware that Prince George has an aboriginal choice school, but he definitely supports them. He said his aboriginal education initiative is running several programs in aboriginal choice schools across Canada.

But these things all take funding, which is becoming more scarce.

“I don’t believe it can be done unless we can all work together,” he said. “We have to respect First Nations traditions … The government underfunds (First Nations education).”

He said providing adequate funding to First Nations communities is what the Kelowna Accord was all about.

Martin also supports initiatives like the one signed by the McLeod Lake Indian Band and the province to share tax revenue from the Mount Milligan mine.

“That’s the kind of agreement that will provide the funding for what needs to be done,” he said.

Martin will deliver the keynote address today at the forum, starting at 3:15 p.m. Asked why he’s coming to Prince George, Martin responded:

“(Prince George-Mackenzie MLA) Pat Bell asked me to,” he said. “I’ve always been an admirer of Pat’s and it’s a pretty important event for the economy of northern B.C.”