Growing up in Windsor, Ont., Paul Martin didn’t meet an indigenous person until one summer, when he got a job as a deck hand in Canada’s north, working on tug barges carrying cargo all along the Mackenzie River.
“All of the young guys, and they’re all guys that I worked with as deck hands, were either Dene … Inuit or Métis,” Martin told The West Block’s Tom Clark in an episode of Plane Talk.
“We became really good friends, but I didn’t realize that they had been to residential school. I didn’t find that out until much, much later, but now I understand the wistfulness with which they spoke.”
Martin has a long political history; in the House of Commons for 20 years, Martin spent 10 as finance minister and three as prime minister.
Toward the end of his time in the Prime Minister’s Office, Martin’s government successfully negotiated a landmark agreement. The Kelowna Accord, agreed to by the provinces, territories and five indigenous organizations, sought to eliminate the gaps between the health, education, housing and economic opportunity of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians.
Though Martin considered this a highlight of his time in office, an election was soon called and Martin lost.
Stephen Harper’s incoming Conservative government, which had voted against the accord, did not carry the document forward, opting to fund aboriginal programs through other means.
“Dealing with the fundamental social issues – education, health care – and filling in those gaps for the indigenous Canadians, I think is absolutely crucial,” Martin said while flying high above the capital region.
Despite the failure of the Kelowna Accord to materialize on the ground, Martin said his main takeaway from his life in Ottawa was how effective one person can be when in public office.
It’s a notion that was introduced to him by his father, who was an MP for more than 30 years before sitting in the Senate for six years and then as high commissioner to the UK for five.
“This was during the Civil Rights marches in the United States, and I walked in them because coming from Windsor, that’s what happened,” Martin said, recalling a long-ago conversation with his father. “I remember talking to him about these issues and he said to me, because I had no interest in politics, he said, ‘You could do more in politics in public life in five minutes than you can do in five months somewhere else.’
“And I must say, that after looking back at my whole life, that’s absolutely true.”
WATCH: Extended Plane Talk interview with Paul Martin