“To be quite honest, I don’t think when you’re six feet under legacy counts”

The Charge of Paul Martin

May 21, 2015 by Michael Hill

Since retiring from politics, Paul Martin has made it his mission to improve indigenous communities across Canada. We connect with the former prime minister to discuss bettering education for Aboriginal students

The first time Paul Martin began to grasp the problems faced by aboriginal Canadians, he was working as a deckhand on a tugboat on the Mackenzie River. The academic year had just ended and an 18-year-old Martin had travelled west from his native Windsor in search of a summer job. He’d found work in the oil fields of Alberta, but the North held a special place in his heart, especially after he spent the prior summer helping to build an RCAF radar station on the outskirts of Winisk, Ont., near the shores of Hudson’s Bay. He decided to hitchhike further north, up to Hay River in the Northwest Territories.

Jobs were plentiful in those days and he had no problem landing a gig on a tug. Much of the crew consisted of Dene or other First Nations tribes, as well as Métis and Inuit. They were hard-working young men, “smart as anything,” Martin recalls. After the long days guiding barges up and down the rushing, icy waters of the Mackenzie, they’d park their tugs along the shores and sit and talk under the night sun. Conversations weren’t always as deep as the water they sailed, but from time to time the tone would shift. They’d discuss where they came from and their prospects in life. But most, Martin found, were pessimistic about the future. “These were really bright people,” Martin recalls. “But they had lost a lot of hope. And it was all the consequence of the residential schools.”

The Indian residential schools were established by the Canadian government in the 1870s with the intention of removing aboriginal children from the influence of their families and communities to assimilate them into the broader Canadian culture. The hardships these children endured were heart-wrenching. A 2014 report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission revealed that many of these students received inadequate food and shelter, others suffered sexual abuse, others died from illness or malnourishment, in failed escape attempts, in fires after windows were locked to stop children from fleeing, or from physical abuse. But all suffered the mental strain of being separated from all they knew and loved. Over 130 residential schools operated in Canada over a period of roughly 120 years, until the final one was closed in 1996. About 150,000 children were subjected to this cultural assassination attempt. More than 4,000 perished.

Martin, like most Canadians in the mid-1950s (or even today, for that matter), knew little of the residential schools. The stories that his shipmates shared, of the schools and being forcibly removed from their families, were unsettling, and Martin never forgot them. “Stayed with me all my life,” he says. “Still today, it really is the reason I’m so active in this whole question of aboriginal education.”

It’s a clear April morning in downtown Toronto as Canada’s 21st prime minister steps off the elevator and onto the sophisticated, Downton Abbey-esque 19th floor of the Fairmont Royal York Hotel. Wearing a cobalt blue suit and a commanding crimson power tie, Martin introduces himself with a hearty “Hello!” and a diplomatic handshake, one that’s not too firm but not too soft, allowing you to set the tone pressure- wise. His thin, snow-white hair is neatly combed and his soft grey eyes cast the acute gaze of a worldly traveller. He’s in town to receive the Canadian Club of Toronto’s 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award, an honour that’s not just recognizing his political achievements, but for his work in Africa, for helping establish the G20 and for his staunch dedication to aboriginal communities.

“He is the quintessential world leader and advocate,” says Canadian Club of Toronto president Jennifer Sloan, as she introduces him to the crowd of 450 that has gathered under the sparkling chandeliers of the Fairmont Royal York’s Concert Hall. He’s a man, she continues, who “dedicated his illustrious career to advancing causes that have long-lasting, positive impacts on millions of lives.”

Over the periodic thunderous applause, Sloan recounts Martin’s days as finance minister, where he not only erased Canada’s deficit but also recorded five consecutive years of budget surpluses, and his appointment as inaugural chair of the finance ministers’ G20. As prime minister, he spearheaded a 10-year health-care plan, established the country’s first early learning and child-care program, and signed the Kelowna Accord, a historic agreement that aimed to rectify funding shortfalls in health, education and housing for Canada’s various indigenous communities. Today, he’s the chairman of the Congo Basin Forest Fund, he serves on the council of the Coalition for Dialogue on Africa and he’s a commissioner for the Global Ocean Commission. He’s also staunchly dedicated to the Martin Aboriginal Initiative, the organization he established to improve education in elementary and secondary schools in aboriginal communities as well as to support aboriginal businesses.

A gentleman at my table leans over and jokingly asks if I have any paper left after that lengthy intro. Indeed, despite those past accomplishments, despite stepping away from politics seven years ago and despite his not-so-young age of 76, Martin seems to be as busy as ever.

“I just decided,” Martin says of his post-politics endeavours, “that if I’m going to devote my life to one thing I’m going to devote my life as much as I can to Africa, I’m going to devote as much as I can to G20, but the prime focus of my life is going to be essentially aboriginal education.”

The biggest challenge the country faces on the matter of aboriginal education, he explains, is funding. Or more accurately: a lack of funding. It was a matter he tried to reconcile with the signing of the Kelowna Accord in 2005. The Kelowna Accord was the first time in the history of Canada that the prime minister sat down with the premiers of every province and territory, as well as the various leaders of aboriginal groups, to figure out how to improve and fund education, living conditions and employment opportunities for the indigenous communities.

Goals were set to boost high school graduation rates and bring them on par with the national average; to reduce health-care issues, including infant mortality rates and youth suicide; and to increase the number of health-care professionals that worked in aboriginal communities. It would have pumped over $5 billion over five years into improving aboriginal communities. It was one of Martin’s proudest moments as prime minister.

“If you think about it: for the first time in the history of the country, the indigenous leaders in the country, all of the premiers, all the territorial leaders and the prime minister and his cabinet at the same table, a table at which we had agreed that we were going to change this deteriorating situation that the First Nations found themselves in, that the Métis found themselves in, the Inuit found themselves in,” he says. “It was an incredibly emotional moment.”

Unfortunately for Martin, and the aboriginal communities, when Stephen Harper and the minority Conservative government took power in 2006 they did not move forward with the accord. They instead offered $450 million in funding over two years as opposed to Martin’s $5 billion over five years. Consequently, Martin says, there remains a massive gap in funding for on-reserve education, anywhere from 30 to 40 per cent, giving the youngest and fastest-growing segment of the country’s population the short end of the educational stick. Without proper funding, they won’t have access to quality teachers, supplies, programs and the like that the rest of Canada’s publicly funded schools are afforded.

“In a country as rich as Canada and we’re not properly educating indigenous Canadians so they can succeed? It’s immoral,” Martin says with ardent fervour. “I don’t think there’s a Canadian in the country who, if they knew that the degree to which primary and secondary school education was under funded by the federal government on the one hand and that the under funding was affecting the youngest and the fastest growing segment of our population on the other, I don’t think there’s a Canadian that would turn their back on that issue.”

Martin feels education is the lynchpin to many of the issues Canada faces. He takes a brief detour back to the mid-1700s. Until that point, economies showed very little progress. But after the 1750s, when the Industrial Revolution took hold and mass public education was implemented, economies were driven to new, previously unfathomed heights. When more people were educated society launched to a level never before imagined.

“So,” Martin explains, “when you ask me, ‘Well there are a lot of things that we should be considering,’ my view is the single most important thing to a better climate to a better economy to better social programs to everything else is fundamentally mass education.”

This funding gap was a major motivator for him to set up the Martin Aboriginal Initiative. The MAI is divided into two divisions, the Martin Aboriginal Education Initiative, which focuses on creating education opportunities for indigenous students, and the Capital for Aboriginal Prosperity and Entrepreneurship Fund, which mentors and develops the business proficiency of aboriginal businesses.

One of the MAI’s big programs is the Wiiji Kakendaasodaa (translated to “Let’s All Learn”) model school project. Let’s All Learn is based on the Turnaround Schools program that was implemented in Ontario when Kathleen Wynne was minister of education. Martin and the MAI worked with a number of educators, many of whom participated in Turnaround, to adopt and tailor the program to fit aboriginal students. In 2009, the five-year model school project was implemented in two First Nations schools — one at Kettle and Stony Point, the other at Walpole Island. The results, Martin explains, were astounding.

Before Let’s All Learn, the vast majority of students in those schools did not meet the provincial standards for reading and writing. In Grade 3, for example, in the 2009-10 academic year, only 33 per cent of students met or exceeded provincial standards of writing and only 13 per cent did the same for reading. Five years later, once the program concluded in 2014, that all changed. When Let’s All Learn concluded, 67 per cent of aboriginal students in the program met or exceeded provincial standards for reading (only three per cent below the provincial average of 70) and 91 per cent did the same for writing — 13 per cent higher than the provincial average.

“What that demonstrates,” says Martin, “is if you bring in the right programs you can turn this around. And you can turn it around because you bring the programs, but also because the First Nations want this change. They want better education.”

But Martin’s work with indigenous peoples hasn’t been a one-way street. It’s shifted his view on life. He explains that the worldview of aboriginals is much different than most of the Western world, and yet its immensely powerful. Many in the Western world view that everything can be categorized and compartmentalized, and that there is essentially a hierarchy to the world where we’re on top and nature is there to serve us. Aboriginals on the other hand, “believe we are all a part of nature,” Martin says. “When they say we must preserve the environment, they’re talking about preserving their surroundings, where as we’re thinking it’s something we can master. And we can’t.” He believes there is something significant in this perspective, “and I think that it’s important for us to listen to it.”

You sound immensely passionate about this topic. But what do you hope your legacy is? Will it be programs like this?

“To be quite honest, I don’t think when you’re six feet under legacy counts.”

Do you ever still get that political itch, though? To maybe get back in the political ring and make that difference?

“Not at all. If you asked me, do I miss politics? Not a dip. Do I miss government? Yes, because in government you can make things happen in five minutes that it takes you five months to do outside of government. So I miss government. But I don’t miss politics at all.”

He explains that, in his early life, politics was never something he considered. He was 48 when he first ran and won the seat for LaSalle-Émard, the western Montreal riding he held from 1988 to his retirement in 2008. Politics was his father’s game, and like many sons who want to make their own mark on the world, he never thought he’d walk the same path that Paul Martin Sr. had. “I think my father was one of the great Canadians and that was his,” Martin explains of his dad’s political service. The elder Martin was a strong believer in the power of government to make a real, positive impact on the lives of others, and that seems to have slowly swayed his son toward the political realm. “His whole view of the international role of Canada and his role in terms of Canada’s social programs were huge influences on me,” Martin adds. “But maybe unconsciously I just decided I would go into politics. I don’t know. But that was what I grew up with, aside from business.”

His life in politics was equally as consuming as his two decades in business, which included being appointed president and CEO of Canada Steamship Lines, a Canadian shipping company he would eventually purchase. He credits his wife, Sheila, who he’s celebrating 50 years of marriage with this year, as the one who made their family so successful.

You’ve led a full, and rather busy, life. But you still keep a full workload today. Are there ever any plans of slowing down?

“I’m going to tell you something. You’re going to find when you get to be my age you won’t slow down either.”

You think?

“You’ll go nuts if you do. You do what you want to do, and you won’t slow down.”

And besides, it’s hard to lose that drive when you’ve seen what Martin’s seen, both the bad and the good. The memories of those friends he met on that tugboat in the Northwest Territories will never diminish. They just seem to keep pushing him forward, like the clear, rushing waters of the Mackenzie.