A mission to improve aboriginals' lives

'I'm going to work on this until the day I die,' vows former PM Martin

Mark Kennedy, revised version published by: Edmonton Journal

Published: Tuesday, August 5, 2014
(originally published by: Postmedia News - December 28, 2011)


Watch for the fire in Paul Martin's eyes as he speaks about how this country has treated Canada's aboriginals. Listen to the sadness in his voice. And don't ignore the hopeful determination in his spirit.

The former prime minister is a man on a mission - to spend the remainder of his life turning back decades of discrimination and finally offer a ray of hope to young aboriginals whose future lies in a better education.

"I think the aboriginal issue is the single biggest moral issue and social issue we have as a country," an impassioned Martin said in a recent interview with Postmedia News at his Montreal office.

"It is a moral issue because we have discriminated against aboriginals since the beginning of the first settlement."

If anyone thinks there still isn't a problem, all they need to do is look at the latest flash point in the headlines - living conditions at the northern Ontario reserve of Attawapiskat, which Martin said is just "the tip of the iceberg" among reserves throughout the country.

"I spend a lot of time in Africa," said Martin, who is still involved in helping the inhabitants of that continent.

"I have never been in an African community as bad as some of the reserves I have been on in this country.

"How can we talk about Canadian values abroad when we're not pre-pared to put those values into place at home?"

Martin was once Canada's most powerful political leader - prime minister from 2003-06, after a successful 10-year stint as finance minister.

Before that, he made his mark as a leading businessman at Canada Steamship Lines.

At age 73, he is a millionaire who could be relaxing in retirement at his country home in Quebec, or sitting on corporate boards and adding to his wealth.

So why, in the wake of his political defeat to Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives in 2006, has he spent so much time - and his own money - trying to make life better for Canada's aboriginals?

As prime minister, Martin made aboriginal issues a personal priority. In 2005, he struck the $5-billion Kelowna accord with provinces and aboriginal leaders.

The agreement set out to improve the education, employment, health and living conditions of aboriginals.

But within two months, Martin lost power and Harper's government didn't carry through with the accord.

Martin's former senior aide, Scott Reid, said that still rankles the former prime minister.

"Kelowna is a stone in his shoe. It's a burr under his saddle. He's always been seized with this issue. Kelowna was his ability to really do something."

Martin said it's a tragedy the Conservatives dropped the accord be-cause "we've lost six years" to make a difference.

"It bothers me because of the huge waste in terms of human life. If they had carried through, there are six-year-olds who, when going into Grade 1, would have got a decent education. And they'll never get those years back."

After he returned to private life in 2006, Martin set up a foundation, the Martin Aboriginal Initiative.

He declined to say how much money he has contributed, only to offer it is a "fair amount."

The foundation was designed to kick-start pilot projects aimed at keeping aboriginals in school and teaching them the importance of becoming a business entrepreneur.

The projects use a variety of innovative techniques - ranging from mentoring high school students in accounting and banking, to creating "model schools" on reserves where the goal is to improve literacy and numeracy skills at the elementary level.

Martin travels throughout the country, visiting reserves, and has persuaded some of the country's blue-chip companies to kick in funds for his pilot projects.

His work has been successful, and provincial governments are starting to pay attention.

He points to some stark statistics as proof why action is so desperately needed to bridge the gap between aboriginals and non-aboriginals:  

  • High school dropout rate: Sixty per cent of aboriginal students on-reserve and 43 per cent of aboriginal students off-reserve have dropped out of high school, compared with 9.5 per cent of non-aboriginal Canadians.
  • University degrees: Seven per cent of First Nations, nine per cent of Métis and four per cent of Inuit people have a university degree, compared with 23 per cent of non-aboriginal Canadians.
  • Incarceration: In 2007-08, aboriginal adults accounted for 22 per cent of prison admissions although they represent only three per cent of the Canadian population.
  • Suicide: The suicide rate for aboriginals is twice the rate for non-aboriginals; for aboriginal youth, it is six times the rate of non-aboriginal young Canadians. 

Martin's personal interest dates back to when he was a teenager. As the son of a high-profile cabinet minister, he grew up in Windsor, Ont., and Ottawa and had never met an aboriginal.

That changed when he travelled to the North for two summers, working on the shores of Hudson Bay, and then, in the Northwest Territories, on a river-borne tug.

He made friends among aboriginals his age.

"We would come into port. We would be (out) at night, a bunch of young guys, 19 or 20, raising hell in the town. These were all my friends."

But Martin couldn't help but notice the sadness in their lives. Back home in Windsor, his buddies talked about how they were ready to "conquer" the world.

Not these young men. "There really was a lack of hope."

In later years, Martin learned that while some were successful, two committed suicide and others went to jail.

"That really hit me. It just wasn't fair. This had nothing to do with these people's intrinsic qualities. It had everything to do with the conditions under which they had lived."

Martin is convinced the solution is education.

Keep the kids in school, design programs tailor-made for their culture, teach them the value of entrepreneurship, and they will achieve success in life.

A descendant of Irish immigrants, Martin points to himself and other non-aboriginals.

"Our ancestors were not treated very well," said Martin, adding that later generations were successful thanks to strong schooling.

"Well, as it was true for the Irish, and the Italians and everybody else who immigrated to this country, why isn't it true for the first peoples?

"And yet what do we do? We don't provide them with the same quality of education that we provide ourselves. We underfund it by a magnificent amount.

"It means they don't have qualified teachers. It means they don't have science labs. It means they don't have gyms. They don't have sports for the kids."

Martin is pleased with the progress made by his foundation's pilot programs - a lesson for all governments to learn and eventually, to adopt.

"That's the good news. The bad news is that its like climbing Mount Everest. We're still at the base camp. We've made huge progress but there's a mountain to climb and we haven't yet begun the climb."

In the meantime, Martin said he's not walking away from the cause.

"I'm going to work on this until the day I die or until I become a golf professional and go on tour," he said.

"And I think the odds of that happening are pretty slim."