Educators can help break the cycle for Aboriginal Canadians

As future educators, University of Western Ontario Faculty of Education graduates have a duty to help Canada’s First Nations break the cycle of poverty and reduce dropout rates, says former prime minister Paul Martin.


Martin spoke to about 700 graduates from the School of Graduate & Postdoctoral Studies and the Faculty of Education at the June 18 morning session of Western’s 295th Convocation.


  Paul Martin


The university conferred an honorary Doctor of Laws (LL.D.) upon Martin in recognition of his contributions as the 21st Prime Minister of Canada and as the founder of the Martin Aboriginal Education Initiative, which aims at reducing the Aboriginal youth dropout rate and at increasing the number of Aboriginal students attending post-secondary institutions.


The tragic consequences of residential schools have left a lasting mark on Aboriginal populations, he notes. It has created barriers to education, and the social and health ramifications are great. In the past, Aboriginal students were also prevented from attending university.


Recent attempts at reconciliation have started a process of change in the experiences of future generations. But Martin says the federal government continues to underfund First Nations schools.


“This is discrimination; there is no other word for it,” he says.


He challenged graduates to think about the “third world” that exists in Canada – the situation of Aboriginal people.


“How can we be so indifferent to the downsides of our own history?” he asks. “How can we present ourselves as an example abroad when the world can see how we treat those at home?”

After his political career, Martin became a champion of Aboriginal issues.


Along with the Martin Aboriginal Education Initiative to reduce the Aboriginal youth dropout rate, Martin and his son, David, founded the Capital for Aboriginal Prosperity and Entrepreneurship Fund, which utilizes investments to expand and encourage a culture of economic independence, ownership and entrepreneurship amongst Aboriginal peoples.


With rising global competitors such as Europe, China and India knocking on Canada’s door, “we cannot afford to waste a single talent,” he says.


“Canada has the ability to ensure the next generation of Aboriginal Canadians becomes the first generation of real and positive change. We have the capacity to ensure that the generation that exists today is the generation that stays in school (and) that is given the tools to succeed … the generation that breaks the cycle of poverty.”


This cannot be achieved by imposing power, but it should build on the strengths of Aboriginal health, identity, traditions, and beliefs.


“I cannot think of a profession that is more important than the one that lies before you,” says Martin. “There is a great world out there and it is yours to make better.”


Before entering politics, Martin studied philosophy and history at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto before obtaining his LL.B. from the Faculty of Law at the University of Toronto. He was called to the Ontario Bar in 1966.


Martin served as the federal Minister of Finance from 1993 to 2002 and Member of Parliament for LaSalle-Émard in Montreal, Quebec for the period 1988 to 2008.


During his tenure as Minister of Finance, Martin erased a $42-billion deficit in four years, subsequently recording five consecutive budget surpluses, while paying down the national debt. He introduced the largest tax cuts in Canadian history and the largest increases in the federal government’s support for education, research and development.


As prime minister, Martin’s many achievements included establishing a 10-year, $41-billion dollar plan to improve health care and reduce wait times, and signing agreements with the provinces and territories to establish a national early learning and child care program.


Under Martin’s leadership in 2005, the Canadian government reached an historic agreement, known as the Kelowna Accord, that would eliminate the gaps between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians in the areas of health, education, housing and economic opportunity. He also introduced the Civil Marriage Act, which redefined the traditional definition of marriage to include same-sex couples.


Currently, along with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai, Martin co-chairs a British-Norwegian poverty alleviation and sustainable development fund for the 10-nation Congo Basin Rainforest. He also sits on the advisory council of the Coalition for Dialogue on Africa, an initiative that examines the critical issues facing the continent.


In his citation, Western President Amit Chakma says Martin’s auspicious political career has shown his devotion to the world’s people through his work on behalf of Africa and Aboriginal Canadians.

“Mr. Martin has said that education is the quintessential infrastructure for everything else and that knowledge and skills are central to growth and central to a fair society,” says Chakma, adding Martin helped to produce the creation of the Canada Research Chairs, the Canadian Foundation for Innovation and Genome Canada.


As part of the ceremony, the status of Professor Emeritus was conferred upon Allen Pearson and the Angela Armitt Award of Excellence in Teaching by Part-Time Faculty was presented to David Watson.