Paul Martin has a keen interest in the issues raised by the Idle No More movement.

As Canada's 21st prime minister, Martin oversaw the signing of the 2005 Kelowna Accord, which envisioned the investment of $5 billion over 10 years for education and social welfare programs for aboriginal Canadians. The project fell apart when Stephen Harper took over that year as prime minister, and cut the funding.

Since his retirement from politics, Martin has continued his work with aboriginal communities and has invested his own money in organizations such as the Martin Aboriginal Education Initiative (MAEI) and the Capital for Aboriginal Prosperity and Entrepreneurship (CAPE) fund.

He spoke with CBC News about the moral and economic imperative for Canada to heal its relationship with aboriginal peoples.

Q: The Kelowna Accord was criticized by some as overly ambitious and expensive. Do you feel this type of mass funding in social welfare programs for aboriginal communities is exactly what's needed now?

A: The Kelowna Accord was not mass funding. It was very targeted to education, healthcare, clean water, economic development, housing and accounting — which is to build up financial capacity, to provide coherent books of account and that sort of thing.

It was very directed. [For example], there is a gross underfunding in terms of primary and secondary schools for education on reserve. The students there are receiving 20 to 30 per cent less per capita than a school off-reserve funded by the provinces. That’s immoral and it’s discrimination. It’s one of the reasons why graduation rates are so much lower for First Nations kids.

Q: The relationship between aboriginal peoples and the rest of Canada seems to be at an impasse. How would you assess this era of activism?

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The Idle No More movement has galvanized native and non-natives alike, says Paul Martin. (CBC)

A: Idle No More, while not unique – there have been other historic examples of it – is nonetheless a very different approach. It’s not violent. This is a huge grassroots movement in which a lot of non-aboriginals are participating. It arose from an issue that all Canadians should be outraged about – which was the slipping into budget bills [of] pieces of legislation that would gut, as an example, environmental assessments on freshwater rivers and lakes. I think what’s happening here is that aboriginals of all kinds are saying, "We’re not going to take this any longer." And Canadians who understand the issues are saying, "You’re right, and we want to join with you." If this isn’t unique, it’s certainly welcome. 

Q: Prime Minister Harper faces an aboriginal movement with varying and often contradictory demands. What’s the best way to approach the multiple agendas within the aboriginal community?

A: I actually challenge your premise. There are not multiple agendas. At the recent meeting last week, the AFN [Assembly of First Nations] came up with a comprehensive list of the issues they want dealt with, whether it be treaties and land claims or education and healthcare. They had a concentrated list. And there was complete agreement on that list.

Where the differences occur is on how to deal with a government that refuses to give you respect and demonstrates no understanding of the issues. I think Shawn Atleo has shown great courage in trying to work with the government. But a number of his chiefs have said, "Look, they won’t listen." None of the issues that have been raised are new issues. But the government has turned its back and given aboriginal Canadians the back of their hand. It’s because of that that you see a difference of opinion. How do you deal with a government that does that?

Q: What are your thoughts on the complex debate over privatization of reserve lands?

A: Manny Jules [Chairman of the First Nations Tax Commission], who is First Nations and who has pioneered this idea, makes a very strong case. But it is not one that has been accepted by the vast majority of the bands across the country. This [privatization] is an issue that the bands themselves must decide. It’s not up to the federal government to decide for them. What happened here is the federal government refused to debate the issue and refused to let Parliament debate the issue. It just simply slipped it into a budget bill.

The old way of deciding whether there could be privatization of these lands was that you had to have a double majority. You had to have majority of those who voted, and of those in the community, which is not unreasonable given low voting levels. What the government did was [to establish] that now 20 or 30 people, if they’re the only ones who voted out of a thousand, can decide the issue.

The government never talked to the First Nations about this. Given that the majority of bands were against it, it’s not unreasonable to say, "Sit down and talk with us" before you act.

Q: What are your thoughts on the Indian Act? It’s an outdated piece of legislation, but there’s huge debate about how to replace it. How do we move forward?

A: I don’t know anybody who thinks the Indian Act is the answer today. It’s largely a racist act. It was established a long time ago when people weren’t as understanding as we are today. Everybody thinks it should be changed. But you can’t make piecemeal changes without talking to people – which is what the government is seeking to do. And you can’t do it without a really good debate about what is going to replace it. There has to be agreement between the First Nations and the government about the structure of the relationship. I don’t think it can be changed by the federal government unilaterally.

Q: How should Canada move forward on unresolved land claims by aboriginal communities? Is this even achievable given the huge amount of money involved?

A: We can’t do what we’ve been doing for 200 years, which is to make commitments and then ignore them. It is the honour of Canada that is at stake. You can’t do everything overnight, but you can demonstrate your preparedness to deal with them as expeditiously as possible, which the government has refused to do.

This question of land claims is an issue that governments of all stripes must bear the responsibility [for]. So the only way to solve it is to get at it.

Q: So, settle the land claims even though there are billions of dollars at stake?

A: This money won’t be lost to the country. Nobody says this money will be frittered away. The First Nations themselves are the first to say that the money would be going into trust funds for generations to come. They would build businesses, help fund education, schools, universities. It’s money that would go to building a far stronger country. It’s compensation that is owed. The commitments were made. The real issue is that the people who are suffering, because these things aren’t being done, are young children. If you want to build a stronger country, then you don’t turn your back on children. They are the ones who will benefit from it. If you invest in young aboriginal children today, they will make major contributions in the future. If you don’t, they will be a major draw on the economy. It’s as simple as that.

Q: If one were to draw up a master plan to heal this relationship, what would be the key measures to take now?  

A: Explain to Canadians the truth of the issues that are being raised. Canadians do not receive an adequate explanation of this. Some of the incredible misconceptions are fostered by the fact that Canadians don’t know and have never been taught aboriginal history adequately. I think that Idle No More is going to force that kind of explanation of why it is that so many people are taking to the streets.

And then you need to establish priorities. But you can’t build a strong economy without decent education or fair and good healthcare. So let’s have that. It’s not reasonable to expect people to drink toxic water. It is not reasonable to say that you are going to come and explore on traditional lands without sitting down with the people who claim those lands and who you are going to eventually want to employ. Those are the issues that I think are the priority ones.