The Inside Agenda Blog

Paul Martin and Shawn Atleo: Still At It

by Steve Paikin Tuesday June 11, 2013

Paul Martin, Canada's 21st prime minister, at a recent lecture at the University of Toronto.

When governments change, much of the policy that made them distinctive goes with them.

In the case of Paul Martin's Liberal government, which ended after the 2006 federal election, I suspect the policy change that broke his heart the most was the Conservative government's decision to cancel the Kelowna Accord.

Yes, the accord was expensive. But it was also a far-reaching attempt, negotiated by the Martin and British Columbia governments, and the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), to sit down at a table like equals, and make progress on a host of issues like health care, education, and accountability. It was 15 months in the making -- the first time ever that a prime minister met with national and regional indigenous leaders. 

Paul Martin with Julia O'Sullivan, dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

Recently, I saw a lecture given at Hart House by the two principals of that accord: Paul Martin and Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, now the national chief of the AFN, but then, the AFN's point man for British Columbia and its 200 First Nations. To see these two men share a stage is to understand how they managed to get an agreement. The mutual respect is obvious. So is the depth of concern of the state of indigenous Canada today. 

"Today in Canada, we have a crazy, paternalistic, and counterproductive system. Aboriginal Canadians should be running their own education system."

That quote, interestingly enough, didn't come out of Atleo's mouth. It came out of the mouth of Paul Martin, Canada's 21st prime minister, who has made improving Aboroginal education standards across Canada the cause of his post-political life.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo.

"Aboriginal Canadians are 4 per cent of the population today and growing fast," Martin says. "We have to keep this front and centre. They need an education, and a house, and clean water to drink. And if you want to develop $650 billion worth of resources in this country, we need them to be full participants."

"There is a dire human rights crisis in Canada today," adds Atleo. "Youth suicide rates are a state of emergency. We must keep asking how this can happen?"

We've done programs tackling this subject on The Agenda and the causes are complicated; everything from the legacy of residential schools to poverty to a lack of opportunity. The suicide rate among indigenous youth is five to six times the national average.

"It's life or death for us," adds Atleo. "We're imploring Canadians to end this. This is the moment we have to grasp to end this despair and bring about the change that's required."

To watch the former prime minister and the current chief on that stage is to imagine that they could actually do it. The goodwill is there. The respect is there. The desire is there. Can the rest of the country pick up this ball and run with it?