Two decades ago he was the slayer of the federal deficit, but Paul Martin says the red ink running through the budget announced this week by the new Liberal government is needed to build Canada's future – and especially the future of young First Nations people.
"I'm delighted with what the government has done," said Mr. Martin, the former Liberal prime minister who, as finance minister in the 1990s, turned a deficit of tens of billions of dollars into a surplus through fiscal restraint that included a 2-per-cent cap on increases to First Nations programs.
The "circumstances between today and 1995 are night and day, black and white," Mr. Martin told The Globe and Mail. "The fact is that, if we don't invest in infrastructure and we don't invest in young people, then we will run deficits, the likes of which you have never seen," he said.
The budget, which drives the government into a $29.4-billion-dollar deficit and does not predict a balance during the entirety of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's four-year mandate, includes extra spending of $8.4-billion over five years for a wide range of indigenous needs including housing, clean water, schools and welfare.
Nearly half of that money – $3.7-billion – is targeted to improve the lamentable state of education on reserves where just four in 10 young First Nations people graduate from high school. That includes $6-million a year to take a successful literacy program offered by the Martin Aboriginal Education Initiative to reserves across the country.
In the section about indigenous spending, the budget makes reference to the Kelowna Accord, the funding deal signed in 2005 between Mr. Martin, when he was prime minister, and indigenous leaders. It would have provided $5-billion over five years to improve indigenous employment, education, and living conditions. It also would have lifted the cap on transfers to the First Nations. But it was abandoned by the Conservative government of Stephen Harper that came to power in 2006.
"If Harper hadn't walked away from Kelowna, we would be 10 years ahead," said Mr. Martin. "If you look at a child going into Grade 1 on a reserve school, that child would now be in high school. They've lost that decade. And that's where the tragedy lies."
If a child cannot read and write in Grade 3, he said, their chances of graduating from high school are significantly diminished. The literacy program offered by Mr. Martin's institute was tested on two First Nations in Southwestern Ontario and, in just under five years, the number of children who could read by the end of Grade 3 increased from 13 per cent to 80 per cent – exceeding Ontario standards.
Critics have suggested that the new Liberal government is promising a very large sum of money for items like indigenous education without first putting in place the checks and balances to ensure that it will be well spent and that the desired outcomes will be achieved.
But "I have every bit of confidence in the capacity of the First Nations to run this adequately," said Mr. Martin.
Despite the billions of dollars that the budget devotes to indigenous issues, some First Nations leaders said Wednesday that it is still not enough.
Sheila North-Wilson, the Grand Chief of the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, which represents 30 First Nations in northern Manitoba, said the $554.3-million over two years that has been allotted for housing amounts to about $440,000 per year for each of the 630 First Nations across Canada. That is enough, she said, to build between two and three homes but some of the First Nations in her territory need 1,500 new homes immediately.
"I am not saying it's totally a bad budget," she said. "I am looking at it as a good first step, but it's got a long way to go to meet the needs in our communities."
Carolyn Bennett, the Indigenous Affairs Minister, said in a telephone interview with The Globe that she too looks at the budget as first step – one that will start the process of rebuilding the relationship between Canada and its indigenous people.
"It's imperative that people have access to clean drinking water, that people are properly housed," said Dr. Bennett. "We're helping people all around the world and people are saying what are you doing about the people here at home, what are you doing about these people who were here first?"