Q&A: Paul Martin on Canadians for a New Partnership

Paul Martin, Canada's 21st prime minister, says healing a "broken relationship" with Canada's Aboriginal Peoples is imperative for the country.

Ex-PM seeks to 'involve Canadians directly' in fixing 'broken relationship' with Aboriginal Peoples

In September, Paul Martin joined a number of high-ranking, retired politicians and aboriginal leaders to form a non-profit group, Canadians for a New Partnership. Its aim is to spark a new national conversation among Canadians on aboriginal issues. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Paul Martin, Canada's 21st prime minister, will almost always pick up the phone when it comes to aboriginal concerns.

In an interview for the CBC-TV series 8th Fire: Aboriginal Peoples, Canada and the Way Forward, he said, "If my grandchildren ask me what I did in my life in terms of this issue and there hasn't been an improvement, then I should feel guilt."

In September, Martin joined a number of high-ranking, retired politicians and aboriginal leaders to form a non-profit group called Canadians for a New Partnership, aimed at sparking a new national conversation among Canadians on aboriginal issues.

Many may wonder what this new partnership could possibly accomplish given its vague, albeit earnest mandate for public forums. But Martin and the rest of the team stand unified as a reminder of what they say is Canada's moral and economic imperative to heal its "broken relationship" with Aboriginal Peoples.

CBC News spoke with Martin about why he is investing time and energy into this new endeavour.

Q: Why has this group come together now, at this point in time?

A: Because it's so needed. If you take a look at the breaches of rights, whether it's the underfunding of education or health care, and all these issues which accentuate the poverty of Canada's indigenous people, and the lack of reaction to them — it becomes clear that if Canadians understood what's at stake, they wouldn't stand for it.

Former prime ministers Joe Clark (left) and Paul Martin (right) look on as former Assembly of First Nations grand chief Ovide Mercredi (centre) responds to questions during a news conference in Ottawa on Sept. 4. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)
All of us are aware of what a massive problem this is, and that it concerns the youngest segment of our aboriginal population, and the fastest-growing segment of our population.

None of us can live with the unfairness out there. I was so hopeful at the time of [the] Kelowna [Accord]. We all came together — the premiers of the provinces, aboriginal leaders and the three parties. We said we're going to deal with these issues set out by the aboriginal leaders themselves, in terms of health care, water and education.

It was such a hopeful time. That nothing happened or replaced it has led us to conclude there's just one answer here, and that is to involve Canadians directly.

Q: We're going into an election year. Are you hoping aboriginal issues will become a national issue in the campaign?

A: It is a national issue already. Since the announcement of our partnership, my phone has been ringing off the hook [with] people saying they want to volunteer. We want to do roundtables in communities across the country.

I got a call from a group saying they'd like to have a roundtable with the reserve next door, and would I help to set it up. I said, "Sure, what's the name of the chief?" I asked, "Do you know any members of the band council?" They didn't. We realized we have to have this dialogue, but we don't know our neighbours.

Q: You became interested in indigenous communities very early in life. Could you recount this?

A: As a teenager, I hitchhiked up to Hay River in the North. At that time — this was 50 years ago — I signed on as deck hand on one of the tug barges that went up and down the Mackenzie River.

So now that Canadians are aware of residential schools, you'd think there would be a huge impetus for progress. It hasn't, and that's amazing.- Paul Martin

The other young fellows who worked on these barges, they were Dene, or First Nations, Inuit or Métis. We were under open skies. There was nothing else to do, so we would talk.

I was born and raised in Windsor, Ontario. All my friends there had a tremendous amount of hope and excitement. These young aboriginal fellows were every bit as smart and hard-working, but that hope and excitement wasn't there.

I knew that there was something very much wrong, and it was what we as a society had done to them. At that point, I vowed to myself that I was going to do something about it.

Many, many years later, I found out what the reason was — these guys had all gone to residential schools.

Q: Former prime minister Joe Clark has said a key problem is the relationship between aboriginal people and the rest of Canada keeps getting worse.  In the arc of your own lifetime, do you think that's the case?

A: Most Canadians previously had no idea what went on in the residential schools. You tell Canadians the last one closed in 1996, they are appalled.

So now that Canadians are aware of residential schools, you'd think there would be a huge impetus for progress. It hasn't, and that's amazing.

Q: Should there be an inquiry into murdered and missing indigenous women?

A: Without any shadow of a doubt. We know poverty is part of the cause, as well as other factors. What we don't know is why has nothing been done about it. That's the issue.

To say, "Just put people in jail," that's not the answer. You're going to prevent this by getting to the underlying causes. We have not been doing that.

Q: Within Canadians for a New Partnership, do you experience the difference in world views among aboriginal and non-aboriginals?

A: I'm going to be giving a speech, a lecture at the University of Saskatchewan, in about two weeks. It's going to be about the indigenous world view. The underlying philosophy of indigenous peoples, which is different from nation to nation, is very profound, and it's different from the essentially Euro-centric vision that you and I grew up with.

I've had to read and talk to a lot of people. It's been an eye-opener for me. What are the underlying cultural perspectives that people have? Why is their tie to the land so much different than ours? These are questions we rarely ask.

I hope that what's going to come out of this dialogue is that more and more Canadians are going to understand this.

Q: Is the aboriginal issue a defining one for you across your long career?

A: It certainly is for me as a Canadian, no doubt about that. We as Canadians have no hesitation lecturing the rest of the world on what they should be doing, how they shouldn't discriminate, and how they should treat the poor.

That same discrimination — unfairness that exists in so many of these countries — has been practised for years in our own country. It's being practised today in the underfunding of [indigenous] health care and education.

This interview was recorded, and edited for length.


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