A Canadian Promise Unkept

Former Prime Minister Paul Martin on the wrongs to aboriginal Canada that must be righted.
By: /
July 2, 2012

All former prime ministers share the challenge of finding a new pursuit, a new passion, for life after politics. Truth be told, in my case, I have long known what that would be.

As a young man in university, I got a summer job as a deckhand on a tug-barge in the Northwest Territories. We travelled the length of the Mackenzie River carrying cargo between Great Slave Lake and the Beaufort Sea.

I worked hard. I saved money for school. I grew a tremendous beard. I also made friends with a number of people my own age, all of whom were either First Nations, Métis Nation, or Inuit. They were hardworking and smart, and each of them was every bit as eager as I was to raise a bit of Cain when in port.

As young men at the beginning of our adult lives, we had much in common. But when we talked about the future, I found there was a deep difference between what they expected from life and what I expected. Like my friends back home, I looked forward to the years ahead with excitement and hope. But too many of the young aboriginal men I worked with saw little reason for excitement, and even less for hope. They had grown up watching their parents, friends, families and whole communities suffer in the shadow of discrimination, neglect, and need.

What they knew as Canada was not a country I recognized. Their country was blinded by the consequences of colonization. What they knew as everyday life – as simple fact – I saw as injustice beyond measure.  

In the years that followed, I’d check in with my friends. Some had found success. More had not. Some were in jail. Others battled addiction. Two had committed suicide.

If I have any regrets today with my political career behind me, the greatest is that for aboriginal Canada: Too little has changed. Too little progress has been made, and the unfairness continues.

But time marches on: We cannot mourn our dreams – we can only strive to fulfill them for the future.

Ours is the privilege of living in a country that is fair and decent to its core. As a society, we’ve laboured for justice – and, in large measure, we’ve succeeded in achieving it.

But when we look at aboriginal Canada, we are blighted, by our blind spots, by years of attempted assimilation, by unjustifiable poverty within our borders and on the margins of our common life. As long as that remains – as long as aboriginal Canadians feel the stifling melancholy of dreams undreamt – our work will be unfinished, our potential unfulfilled, the full promise of Canada un-kept.

All of us know the statistics – disease, infant mortality, incarceration rates, and suicide. We know the reality. Many of us have seen it firsthand. And yet, too few aboriginal leaders have found in us the partners they need as they seek to scale the heights of indifference that confront them.

We are a kind nation and Canadians are a good people. It is not out of malice that we allow these conditions to continue. It is not out of cruelty that we turn away from the images of squalor, racism, and the voices of those in need.

But we are too numb, too familiar perhaps to be shocked by the misery in our midst. And so, for too long, we have chosen complacency. We have let languish, generation after generation of untapped potential, and we have watched history repeat itself before our eyes.

This doesn’t have to be. For over 20 years  in public life, I saw Canadians at their best and their proudest. I saw our country in moments of triumph and in times of loss. I know what we are capable of. I have seen the power of our quiet patriotism. I know the sense of determination and the spirit of fairness that beats within the Canadian heart.

To the men and women of our country, to the young Canadians today – aboriginal and non-aboriginal – who will lead us in the future, I would say : While we have accomplished much, if we work together in a “real” partnership, one based on true respect and understanding, we can accomplish so much more.

This is certainly the right thing to do morally, as it is in terms of the values we proclaim to the world. But it is also the right thing to do in terms of our economic future, and it is the responsibility of all of us in this room to work with Canadians to change what for too many is a given, recognizing that if we continue to ignore the education and the potential of the youngest and fastest growing segment of our population, we will do so at the expense of the hopes and dreams of every Canadian not yet born, they who will face a global competition the likes of which we have never seen.

What matters is not just the sincerity of our intent or the eloquence of our rhetoric. What matters is the real, tangible and lasting improvements that are made in the lives of aboriginal Canadians throughout the land – our fellow countrymen and women, too long ignored, and so eager to experience the benefits of the prosperity many of us take for granted.

We have a future to deliver – promises inscribed on the parchment of treaties and in the words of the Constitution but also etched in the hearts of so many young people who have been touched by the experience of their elders. Their lives will be our legacy.

With all the passion I can muster, with all the faith I feel, with all the confidence I hold in the country we share, I have but one hope tonight: It is that the next generation of aboriginal Canadians becomes the generation that stays in school; that breaks the cycle of poverty and despair; that builds the great companies; the generation of First Nations, Métis Nation and Inuit that discovers the new truths of science; that paints the great paintings; that plays the great music; and that brings into this world its own generation of children, who grow up to view life with excitement and hope, full of promise – the bounty of Canada theirs to share at long last.

This essay was originally a speech delivered at the Public Policy Forum's 25th Annual Testimonial Dinner & Awards