But more than 50 years ago, that’s what he was doing, working on the shores of Hudson Bay and on barges on the Mackenzie River, “raising hell,” as he says, with his friends.
“All my friends were either First Nations, Metis or Inuit,” Martin said, on the line from his Montreal office. “And it was very evident to me then … that the opportunities my friends back in Windsor, Ont., had were very different than the opportunities these young men I was working with up North had.
“And they were every bit as smart and hard-working, but life had not dealt them the same hand as people who grew up in Windsor. I always thought that was very unfair.”
It was this sense of injustice that has made him a champion of Aboriginal education since he left office in 2006, spearheading several pilot projects that aim to get at the root causes of why so many First Nations students drop out before they finish high school.
The Martin Aboriginal Education Initiative has focused on finding ways to speak to the students in new ways that will not only keep them in school, but allow them to thrive and become role models for those who follow.
Martin was in Sudbury on June 8 to address a meeting of Catholic educators from across Canada, encouraging them to take part in the initiative.
A couple of years ago, local school boards signed an agreement with Laurentian University that allows First Nations students in high school to start earning university credits. Spread over three years, 60 students from the Rainbow District and the Sudbury Catholic District school boards took courses at Laurentian in three areas: native human services, commerce and environmental studies.
It's designed to give them a taste of university, skills to excel in a post-secondary setting, as well as a foot in the door when they graduate from high school because they will have university credits.
Martin said that the commerce program in particular has met with great success.
“We started this … as a pilot project in an on-reserve school in Thunder Bay. It’s now going right across the country and it has been a huge success,” he said. “Our school in Winnipeg won a national contest put on by the Business Development Bank of Canada. They won the gold, the silver and the bronze prizes, So the course is doing very, very well.
“We have a pilot project at (Laurentian) University that is evolving. We’re in about nine schools across the country, and within the next three or four years, we’ll probably be in 30 or 40 schools.”
And in the fall in Sudbury, a new mentorship program will kick off that will see Aboriginal students paired with mentors at the local accounting firm KPMG LLP.
Catherine McCullough, director of education at the Sudbury Catholic District School Board, said the board is honoured to work with Martin, particularly with the initiative’s strong track record.
“The latest the mentoring program that we are just beginning at St. Benedict’s school, involves a partnership (with KPMG), which will mentor some of our Aboriginal students throughout their entire secondary school career, and into their post-secondary education,” McCullough said. “It’s fabulous. It gives those kids some encouragement throughout their educational career.”
The program will start off small – four students are enrolled for the fall semester. To participate, students must be recommended by teachers, get their parents’ permission and then be paired with a mentor from the accounting firm.
“The program not only encourages kids to stay in high school, but it encourages them to enter careers,” McCullough said. “And not necessarily in accounting, either.
“It’s had huge success throughout Canada in a number of areas where pilot projects have been launched … It could be job shadowing, it could be a co-operative work placement, summer employment … It’s all part of Mr. Martin’s vision, which is to get as many Aboriginal youth involved in really powerful post-secondary education programs. So that’s really the emphasis.”
McCullough, who is of Metis descent, is one of three people in Canada sitting on an advisory group directing a website (www.maei-ppw.ca) that provides resources to teachers on the best approaches to Aboriginal education.
“That’s how I first got involved in the Martin Aboriginal Education Initiative,” she said. “It’s an absolutely excellence resource for services, programs, etc. for Aboriginal students across Canada. We’re really excited about that, too.”
Martin said one of the root causes of the problems with educating Canada’s First Nations is “discrimination” when it comes to school funding.
“The very high dropout rate among Aboriginal students occurs for two reasons: one, many, many schools on reserves are underfunded. The provinces invest far more per school in the public system than the federal government does in schools on reserves. It’s discrimination and it’s one issue that has to be resolved.
“The other issue is that kids drop out in high school because of problems that start in primary school. And the major problem is literacy. You’re supposed to learn how to read by Grade 3. If you haven’t, in Grade 4 you fall behind. You fall behind further in Grade 5, in Grade 6, in Grade 7, and on, until you finally drop out.”
To address such core problems, Martin’s team has set up pilot projects on two reserves in Ontario, which have been running for a few years now and have been hugely successful in ensuring kids can read by Grade 3 and are able to keep up through to Grade 8, when they will be ready for high school.
And broadly speaking, that’s how the initiative is supposed to work. They identify the core problems, create pilot projects aimed at dealing with the problems, refine and change them over a period of years.
“Hopefully, once we have proved that the project can work, it can expand nationally.”
One thing they have learned is that Aboriginal students, like everyone else, learn more successfully when they see themselves reflected in their textbooks. So, for example, with the business program, they had two of the instructors take a year off to create textbooks and workbooks specifically geared for First Nations.
“They are the first ever that have been written by indigenous people,” he said. “And the impact has been huge. Let me give you an example. Educators have learned this around the world: Canadian kids want to see themselves reflected in Canadian textbooks; British kids want to see themselves in British textbooks. The same principle applies to Aboriginal students. They want to see themselves and Aboriginal role models reflected in what they’re reading.
“We’re getting calls from New Zealand and all over the place looking for copies of them, but we’re keeping them strictly for our course.”
Posted by Arron Pickard