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Paul Martin’s vision for indigenous people reborn in new federal budget

By Roderick Benns

From a policy perspective, no former Canadian prime minister in living memory has done more after leaving office than Paul Martin.

In particular, his work on behalf of indigenous Canadians has been stellar, an echo of his time in office. It was back in 2005, after 18 months of consultations with indigenous leaders, that Mr. Martin spearheaded the Kelowna Accord, an investment of historic proportions for indigenous Canadians.

It was a $5.1-billion, five-year deal calculated to bridge the gap between the indigenous people of the country and the rest of Canada’s population. However, the Conservatives abandoned the Accord in their maiden budget in 2006 – one of their very first acts of governance.

After losing the 2006 election to the Conservatives, Mr. Martin was disappointed but not undaunted when it came to his dedication to the indigenous file. That’s when he created the Martin Aboriginal Educational Initiative (MAEI), a charitable initiative which aims to support education for indigenous students across Canada and to empower them to pursue post-secondary studies.

One of the many components of MAEI was to initiate two elementary model school projects in partnership with the Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation and with Walpole Island First Nation, both in Southwestern Ontario. The five-year projects were based on the very same curriculum and teaching strategies that began in Ontario’s “at-risk” elementary schools and which were so successful for Ontario.

In under five years the number of students who could read by the end of Grade 3 grew from 13 percent to a staggering 80 percent – better than the average for non-indigenous students. The percentage of students identified for speech and language services decreased from 45 percent to 19 percent in Senior Kindergarten to Grade 3.

The intent of the model projects was to accelerate improvement in literacy so that the gains would serve “as a catalyst for action by the wider Aboriginal leadership, the corporate community and by governments,” with the hope this could be amplified in other indigenous schools.

In this case, at least one government was listening. The model projects did not go unnoticed by our current Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau. The federal government just committed annual funding in the recent budget of $6 million for the next five years to roll it out to as many indigenous schools as possible.

It is a great victory for Mr. Martin and of course, for First Nations peoples.

For Mr. Martin, his own personal odyssey to make a difference in the lives of indigenous people began one summer when he was a young man in university. He found summer work as a deckhand on a tug-barge in the Northwest Territories, travelling the whole length of the Mackenzie River carrying cargo between Great Slave Lake and the Beaufort Sea.

The new friends he would work with were all either First Nations, Métis, or Inuit.

“But when we talked about the future, I found there was a deep difference between what they expected from life and what I expected,” Martin reflected in a 2012 speech.

“…many of the young Aboriginal men I worked with, saw little reason for excitement and even less for hope. They had grown up watching parents suffer, friends and families suffer, whole communities suffer in the shadow of discrimination, neglect and need.”

Now, many decades later and with the wisdom and leadership he has both gained and provided, Mr. Martin surely must feel that the tide is about to turn in favour of indigenous people. His own journey from deckhand on a tug boat, to prime minister of Canada, and now philanthropic, policy-driven leader, has played no small role in these events.





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