Paul Martin is making a difference
TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Wed Nov 30 2011. By Bob Hepburn, Editorial Page
After Paul Martin lost the 2006 federal election, few Canadians would have been surprised if the defeated Liberal prime minister opted to slink quietly into a cushy corporate or law firm job.
That’s because virtually all of our former prime ministers have done just that, avoiding public life and instead spending most of their post-political careers sitting on the boards of big businesses, advising rich legal clients or playing golf.
But Martin has chosen a different path — one as a humanitarian activist on issues ranging from aboriginal education and the environment in Canada to poverty in Africa.
In fact, Martin has emerged as Canada’s equivalent of Bill Clinton, the former U.S. president who, through his Clinton Foundation, has become a world leader in raising awareness and money to combat HIV and AIDs and developing programs to alleviate poverty.
Or Martin could also be compared with Jimmy Carter, the ex-U.S. president who founded the Carter Center, which works to advance human rights and is also a key player in Habitat for Humanity.
While Martin may lack Clinton’s glamour and charisma and Carter’s international reputation, he is doing as much — and in many cases more — to make a difference than the two American statesmen.
In 2008, he launched the Martin Aboriginal Education Initiative, a national project that offers programs designed to help lower dropout rates for aboriginal students. He has also created a fund to help aboriginal entrepreneurs start new businesses.
At the same time, Martin is co-chair of the Congo Basin Forest Fund, which addresses poverty issues in a 10-nation region in Africa, and is an adviser to the Coalition for Dialogue on Africa, an international think-tank that focuses on security, governance and development.
On all of these projects, Martin has received heartfelt praise for his hard work and perseverance. For example, he has visited isolated schools, without fanfare, to meet and speak with just six students.
For Martin, such praise is a far cry from the reception he received during his turbulent days as prime minister, when he was frequently criticized as “a ditherer.”
Martin’s post-politics activism is in stark contrast to other former prime ministers.
Jean Chrétien now spends his days as a lawyer in a high-profile Ottawa legal firm. Brian Mulroney has worked primarily as an international business consultant, sitting on the board of directors of some of the world’s largest corporations.
When he quit politics, Pierre Trudeau went into virtual seclusion at a Montreal law office. And Joe Clark retreated to academia, occasionally travelling abroad promoting good governance.
At 73, Martin shows no sign of slowing down.
His travel schedule is brutal.
On Tuesday, Martin was honoured by the Churchill Society at a black-tie dinner in Toronto for his work promoting parliamentary democracy. On Monday, he received the Egerton Ryerson Award from the People for Education organization for his dedication to public education.
Last Wednesday he was in Winnipeg, speaking to 16,000 students at a We Day youth rally about the need to improve aboriginal education. Two days earlier he had been in North Africa. A week earlier he was in Washington discussing banking regulations at a Canadian embassy event.
And days before that, he was in Toronto to receive an award from the magazine Corporate Knights for his work on environmental issues.
He’s also taken time out in recent days to speak in support of the Occupy movement, praising it for raising awareness of the income-inequality gap.
At the heart of Martin’s activism is his passion. He told the high-powered Churchill Society dinner crowd that it is absolute discrimination that aboriginal schools receive barely half of the money spent on other public schools.
“We can’t allow the current state of aboriginal education to continue,” Martin implored, noting the dropout rate for Inuit students tops 75 per cent.
It’s a message that Martin has pushed for four years now since leaving federal politics. It’s a message that hopefully is starting to be heard.
As Phil Fontaine, former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, says, the ex-prime minister has set “the gold standard” for all those wanting to make the world a better place.
Indeed, Paul Martin is a person making a difference.