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Former prime minister Paul Martin could have put up his feet after leaving political life, but relaxation is not part of his DNA.

Mr. Martin didn't need money, so he embarked on projects that meant a lot to him and to the country, especially aboriginal education, a pressing long-term problem in Canada.

Through the Martin Aboriginal Education Initiative, Mr. Martin is trying to raise awareness of, and do something about, the challenges of educating aboriginal young people. He contributed seed money to launch projects, notably but not exclusively in entrepreneurship and literacy. Foundations, provincial governments and individuals contribute more money to spread the pilot projects.

Anyone who crosses paths with Mr. Martin these days senses the passion and urgency with which he addresses the challenge. He, like many others, laments the state of funding for education on reserves.

He explains "underfunding" this way: Ottawa compares what it pays for each reserve student with provincial averages and denies that a problem exists. Mr. Martin insists that the comparison should be made with per capita funding for remote and rural schools, which always require more money than urban ones. Factor in geography, to say nothing of the specific additional challenges of educating young people on reserves, and Mr. Martin believes the gap is $2,000 to $3,000 per student.

Money is important, but it isn't the only challenge in improving education on reserves. Only half of aboriginal children live with two parents, compared with three-quarters of non-aboriginal children. Almost half of all children in Canadian foster homes are aboriginal.

Unemployment on reserves is endemic, as are all sorts of social problems: fetal alcohol syndrome, poor housing, weak literacy rates, a lack of role models and other impediments to learning. So many reserves are economic dead ends that children find little incentive to learn.

Better formal education may be a way to improve this altogether unsatisfactory situation. As Statistics Canada reported last week, 28 per cent of Canada's Indian, Métis and Inuit population is under 14 years of age, compared with 16.5 per cent for the non-aboriginal population. And the overall aboriginal population is growing fast: 20-per-cent growth nationwide between 2006 and 2011, compared with 5.2 per cent for the rest of the population.

For some provinces, better aboriginal education will be indispensable to future well-being.

Take Manitoba, which Mr. Martin visited last week in connection with his initiative. Manitoba can't reach a better economic standing without fuller and better participation of its aboriginal population, because it and Saskatchewan have the largest share of total population that is aboriginal, mostly Indian.

Manitoba's statistical office estimates that the province will need another 186,200 workers by 2020. The jobs most in demand – sales and service; business, finance and administration; management, health, social science, education and government services – all require high levels of education.

What happens too often is that aboriginal children arrive at school not ready to learn. They fall behind the curriculum on the reserve (or behind other students at off-reserve schools) and are subsequently not prepared for high school. Poor grades lead to dropout rates that are way higher than provincial averages and postsecondary admission rates that are much lower. The work force participation rate for aboriginals is roughly 20 points lower than for immigrants who have been in Canada for fewer than 10 years.

Winnipeg has improved markedly as an urban area in the past 15 years. But it remains plagued by gangs, crime and violence. As a result, the fastest-growing increase in provincial government personnel is in corrections. The federal Harper government's "tough on crime" policies will make everything worse by driving up aboriginal incarcerations in the province's already crowded prisons.

Mr. Martin is the first to acknowledge that his efforts, and those of other foundations and private interests, can't replace what he sees as the proper level of government funding for on-reserve education. The challenge of raising aboriginal education levels is evident across Canada – nowhere more so than in Manitoba.