Paul Martin Jr. has the perspective and experience to weigh in on any number of the issues besetting the nation these days.
But that doesn't mean he wants to. Though the 80-year-old former prime minister agreed to chat by phone from Montreal on a range of matters, what he most wanted to talk about were the projects his Martin Family Initiative is developing to help bring prosperity to Canada's Indigenous communities. It's a fine and worthy subject, and if we could hurry up and get to it, he'd appreciate it.
I want to start with trade.
Why am I surprised?
What’s your reaction to the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement?
Uncertainty was a major issue. And as a result, my reaction was very positive.
What do you think of Canada’s negotiating tactics?
I really think Chrystia Freeland and the Prime Minister handled it as it had to be handled.
They were dealing with what seems to be a really recalcitrant and belligerent administration.
Those are your words, not mine.
How should Canada approach its relationship with the U.S. going forward? I’m thinking particularly of the steel and aluminum tariffs that are still in place.
Those tariffs were a major mistake and should go. I also believe this is a much larger debate involving not simply Canada and the United States, but involving, really, the global trading system. Globally, we’re dealing with a substantial loss of trust in major institutions. That trust has got to be re-established if we’re going to have a global trading system that works.
Trump’s corporate tax cuts have put Canada in a tight spot. How should we respond?
I made it a point, for obvious reasons, not to make public comment. I will tell you, the most worrisome thing coming out of the tax cuts in the United States is what it will do to their debt ratio and deficit in the years to come. It’s going to put the United States in a very difficult situation. And for what? There was no need for stimulus at this point.
Would you comment at all on trade opportunities beyond the U.S.?
There are a lot of opportunities out there. I don't think any of these opportunities replace the importance of the countries with which we currently trade. I do believe the opening up of Asia is going to continue, and I think there are real opportunities there.
That brings me to the G20. One of its goals when it began in 1999 was to bring China to the table. What role should the G20 play now? (see footnote 1)
I think the role of the G20 is increasing. From a trading point of view, large, populous bodies such as India, China and Africa are crucial, because economies are essentially based on consumer purchasing. Take a look at China’s One Belt, One Road. (2) It’s all based on infrastructure. The same rationale can apply to uniting the African continental market: infrastructure and education. The G20 has got to take a longer point of view. It has to work to prevent crises. We waited too long to deal with climate change. In terms of Africa, for heaven’s sake, it’s going to be 25% of the world’s population in 20 to 25 years. Don’t wait 20 to 25 years to face up to the need for better education and infrastructure in Africa.
Let’s get to the Indigenous issue.
God, I thought you were never going to.
I promised to get there. You have long ties to Indigenous communities in Canada. When did that begin?
I had never met an Indigenous person until I was about 17, and I got a job working in construction near a place called Winisk, on the shores of Hudson Bay. A couple of summers later, I got a job as a deckhand on the tug barges, and all the people I worked with were young men who were First Nations, Métis and Inuit. I learned an enormous amount. I was given an insight into how deep and how rich those cultures are. But I also learned about the residential schools and understood the melancholy that existed.
When you were prime minister, you introduced the Kelowna Accord, (3) which the Harper government dropped when it won power. How do you view what’s been done on this file since then?
We lost a decade when that happened. The Kelowna Accord and the apology were part of the same. To have done one without the other was a major mistake. The advantage of Kelowna is that all the parties, for the first time in history, were at the table. There were ongoing negotiations over 18 months, and all the issues we’re talking about today were dealt with at the table. A framework was set up by which progress could have been made, and the money was put there to do it. What the current government has done is, in a different way, to start to put that process together and put up the money.
That steers me to the subject of pipelines. I want to get your reaction to the Trans Mountain fiasco. Should the government have stepped in to buy it?
I think the government did the right thing. A very large number of First Nations have said they want a piece of the action. That’s a very important initiative on their side. I hope it goes through.
Did the government make a mistake in its initial consultation?
The original mistake was when the whole question of environmental consultation was changed five or six years ago and wasn’t beefed up. No, I don’t think the government made a mistake, but I think the government is now dealing with it the way it should.
A while ago, I spoke with Perry Bellegarde. (4) He believes First Nations people should get an equity stake in projects that affect their lands. What’s your view?
There are many ways in which they can get a piece of the action. But there is no excuse for leaving Indigenous peoples behind. There are enormous skills out there among people who, if given a chance, would show a degree of involvement and leadership that would be of great value to Canada.
Bellegarde talks about ''closing the gap'' between First Nations peoples and the rest of Canada in terms of economic health, personal health, education. Is that one of the goals of the Martin Family Initiative?
It is to totally close the gap, not to simply narrow it. One of the huge problems that exists is the lack of economic opportunity for young people. Education has to play a role here. I won’t take you through every program, but I will take you through three, if I might.
The first one is the Aboriginal Youth Entrepreneurship Program. There were no high school business programs in any of the Indigenous schools. So we created a business course, teaching accounting, marketing and financial literacy, and we took it to a reserve school in Thunder Bay that served small communities up and down Hudson Bay. It was a huge success.
When was that?
It was the first thing I did after I stopped working in Africa 10 years ago. (5) We then took it to a school in Winnipeg, called Children of the Earth. A young Cree came up to me and said, ''Mr. Martin, I really like your course. But you know, a lot of your examples are from Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, and a lot of us live in much smaller communities.'' And, of course, the light went on. We immediately got together with a publisher and put together a set of Grade 11 and 12 business workbooks and textbooks in which all of the examples were Indigenous and all of the issues were culturally appropriate.
You made it much more relevant.
Totally. And the course took off. We are now in 44 schools across the country, both on reserve and off reserve where the class is 100% Indigenous.
And your family initiative is funding this effort?
We got it going. And we raised the money to go in the on-reserve schools. It's now part of the public school system.
Have you seen the fruits of this?
We’ve got close to 4,000 graduates. They’re getting jobs or starting their own businesses. An essential part of getting a piece of the action is the ability to take advantage of it.
The second program I would like to talk about is what we call the model schools. If you can’t read and write by the end of Grade 3, chances are you will not graduate from high school. In Ontario, 70% of students can read and write at the standard by the end of Grade 3. The number is somewhere between 13% and 20% in on-reserve schools. So we did a pilot program in two communities. Five years later, 81% could read by the end of Grade 3.
It was a massive success. And a number of other things occurred. Math scores went way up. Language skills, not only in English but in the First Nations languages as well, went way up. The number of kids who were thought to have reading disabilities disappeared. So we went into a partnership with the federal government, and we are in the process of introducing this program into 12 primary schools in New Brunswick, Saskatchewan, British Columbia, Alberta, Nova Scotia and Ontario, and we are going into another six. We train the teachers, but it’s their show.
I can’t tell you how excited I am. We’re not in every school yet. But when we go up north, it’s really going to be something.
The last program I would like to talk to you about is our early childhood program. The issue here is, the most important years of anyone’s life in terms of learning is from conception to the age of four or five. So we have gone into partnership with a community in southern Alberta (6) and created a training program that will enable women who have raised their children in a community to introduce themselves to young mothersto-be, hopefully at the beginning of their pregnancies, and say, ''Let me help you through it.'' The difference--we’re already seeing it--can be night and day.
How would you compare your satisfaction from this work to that of your work as a politician?
Everything I’ve been involved in, I’ve been quite enthusiastic about. But I cannot tell you how deeply I feel about this early years program and the others we’re involved in. This is the fastest-growing segment of our population. We are an aging population. If you agree we’ve got to give young Canadians a real chance, the chance my generation had, then you sure as hell can’t leave Indigenous Canadians behind. People talk about closing the gap. My view is, leapfrog the gap.
1. Martin was the co-founder of the G20 and its first chair at the finance minister’s level.
2. “One Belt, One Road” refers to a huge trade and infrastructure initiative meant to link China over land and sea to 70 countries spanning Asia, Europe and Africa.
3. The Kelowna Accord would have invested $5 billion into health care, education, housing and opportunities for Indigenous communities.
4. Perry Bellegarde is the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations.
5. When Martin left government in 2006, he was invited by soon-to-be U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown and UN chair Kofi Annan to help lead two African economic development initiatives that took up most of the next two years.
6. Martin was initially reluctant to name the community but later confirmed it is Ermineskin Cree Nation.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Trevor Cole is the award winning author of five books, including The Whisky King, a non-fiction account of Canada’s most infamous mobster bootlegger.