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Former prime minister Paul Martin receives honorary degree from the University of Lethbridge

WATCH: Paul Martin received an honorary degree from the University of Lethbridge on Saturday in recognition of his contributions to the country.

The University of Lethbridge presented Canada’s 21st prime minister Paul Martin with an honorary degree during the fall 2019 convocation ceremony.

The honorary doctor of laws recognizes Martin’s contributions to the country during his time as finance minister and then prime minister.

READ MORE: Former prime minister pushes aboriginal education

“The University of Lethbridge is an outstanding university but what adds to that is their involvement with Indigenous peoples,” said Martin after the ceremony, noting the institution’s First Nations’ Transition Program that provides Indigenous students the opportunity to participate in a first-year credit program even if they aren’t fully admissible.

“I am just so proud of getting this honorary degree,” Martin said.

“But to get it from Lethbridge — with what Lethbridge is doing in terms of the Indigenous population of our country — just makes it so valuable.”

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During his term as prime minister from 2003 to 2006, Martin worked on closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians by negotiating the Kelowna Accord, a plan to improve health, education, housing and economic opportunity.

After leaving office, Martin established a foundation, called the Martin Family Initiative, that works with Indigenous leaders, teachers and governments to improve education for Indigenous youth.

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“Our paths have crossed over the years and I know he has a really high interest in Aboriginal education,” said the university’s chancellor, Charles Weaselhead, who is the former Chief of the Blood Tribe and Grand Chief for Treaty 7.

“He has taken the time and [made] the commitment to help out and support our tribes and our nations.”

Martin noted that improving education, whether it be through the foundation or the university’s transition program, is a step towards reconciliation.

“The history of Indigenous education as led by the rest of us is not something of which we can be proud…. Reconciliation is trust, it is working to overcome that history.”

“Indigenous young people,” he said, noting they are the fastest-growing segment of Canada’s population, “are going to be the backbone of so much of our future.

‘That’s why their education is important.”

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Weaselhead agreed, adding that he is a product of a residential school himself, having been in one for 11 years.

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READ MORE: Former prime minister Paul Martin says aboriginal chief an inspiration

“It was a challenge and all because of the cultural development and being introduced into the education system [like that],” he said. “We’ve often heard our community, our leadership, say we need to create our own destiny but you can only do that with knowledge. You can only do that with the right education.”

Martin left the graduates with some advice: Learn from the past and understand which direction the world is going in so you can make a difference.

From the archives: Paul Martin on Indigenous issues