A steady course: Canada’s 21st Prime Minister has worked to build a better life for all Canadians
By Joel Wittnebel/Active Senior’s Digest
A person’s life is defined by their experiences. The events over the course of our days all coming together to shape and mould our personalities and our priorities.
For Paul Martin, one could pick through the biography of his past and point to more than a few events that make up the canon of his accomplishments and his successful career as defining moments.
During his tenure as Canada’s Finance Minister, he pulled the country’s books back from the brink of crippling debt. As our 21st prime minister, he introduced one of the largest healthcare reform bills ever seen in this country and he signed a historic agreement with Canada’s First Nations, Metis and Inuit.
Looking even further back, one could point to his acquisition of GSL Group Inc, the largest self-unloading shipping company in the world, as a fairly influential moment.
However, for Martin himself, the moments that had the largest impact on him, came not on Parliament Hill and not in a boardroom — they came on the back of a tug barge on the Mackenzie River.
Shipping in the Land of the Midnight Sun
The Mackenzie River, which flows from Great Slave Lake, through the barren tundra and forest of the Northwest Territories to the Arctic Ocean, is the largest river system in the country, and acts as a main thoroughfare for goods to the isolated communities of Canada’s north.
These goods are carried on tug barges that travel along the waterway, and it was here, working as a deckhand, that a young Martin first encountered an issue that he would champion throughout his political career, a career that would eventually see him become Canada’s leader.
However, before all that happened, Martin was just a young twenty-something from Windsor, Ontario looking for a summer job.
Unlike the employment market of today, post-war Canada was rich with opportunity for young kids looking for work, and with experience working on fishing boats in Lake Erie, it was in the oil fields of northern Alberta that Martin first found gainful employment.
Yet, it was a lifelong love of shipping boats that pushed Martin north, hitchhiking along the Athabasca River into the Northwest Territories, and eventually into the deckhand position on the Mackenzie.
He remembers the work well, but he remembers the moments in between the working even more.
“You’re going up and down the river, there’s nobody else along, and often times, you’d pull off against the shore while you’re waiting to unload in a port, and don’t forget, this is the land of the midnight sun, the sun never went down,” he recalls. “All the other guys that I worked with were either Metis, First Nations, Dene in this case, or Inuit….So, we’d just all talk. I think that this is where my interest in the whole question of Indigenous Canada came. I spent night after night talking to these guys and they were smart as hell.”
The plight of these men shocked him, they were intelligent, hardworking Canadians, just like himself, but their past told a much different story.
“It was very clear life had dealt them a very unfair hand,” he says. “I don’t think there’s any doubts, that’s really where my desire to do something here came.”
From business to public life
Martin’s love affair for the shipping business continued for a two decade career that saw him eventually take over as CEO of GSL Group Inc, the worlds largest self-unloading shipping company.
It was in 1988 that Martin would follow in his fathers’ footsteps, and move into public life, being elected as a member of parliament for the Quebec riding of LaSalle-Emard in western Montreal, a seat he would hold until his retirement in 2008.
During his first years in politics, Martin and the Liberal party acted as the official opposition to the Progressive Conservative government under Brian Mulroney. Despite watching his father during his years in the House of Commons, Martin says those first few years were used to really watch and learn.
“I had watched it through my father, but it’s a very different thing when you’re there yourself,” he says.
In 1993, the Liberals won a landslide majority government under Jean Chretien and Martin would be appointed to the position of Minister of Finance that year.
It was an honourable post, especially after much of the public viewed the relationship between Martin and Chretien as a rocky one following a bitter race for the party leadership in 1990.
Not only that, but Martin was handed a set of Canadian budget books that were so far in the red, the pages could have been bleeding onto his hands.
With that said, Martin relished the opportunity, and saw clarity in the position. At the time, Canada’s finances were among the worst of the G7 countries, and because of that, Martin could see a clear path forward with the goal in sight.
“It was very clear, if we were going to preserve our social programs, our healthcare, education, research, we were going to have to deal with that balance sheet,” Martin says.
Saving such programs was not only a political move, but a personal one, as Martin sought to be the saviour of his father’s legacy, a longtime advocate of such programs for Canadians.
The budget cuts that followed were felt across the country.
“We were spending 36 cents out of very dollar on debt service, and there was no doubt in my mind that there was going to be some kind of financial crisis, and when that happened, that 36 cents was going to rise like a hot air balloon, and that was going to decimate our social programs,” he says.
However, throughout the five years it took to eliminate the deficit, Martin promised Canadians, that once that goal was achieved, investments would be made in the things that mattered.
In 1998, Martin dropped a balanced budget on the tables in the House of Commons, only the second time such an achievement had been obtained in the 36 years prior. For the next five years, Martin would continue to deliver balanced budgets.
The following year, Martin would also play a pivotal role in the expansion of the G7, becoming the inaugural chair of the Finance Minister’s G20 in 1999.
His promise to the Canadian people would come due a few years later.
In 2002, the existing tensions between Martin and Chretien would again boil to the surface, as many stories at the time noted that Martin was dropped from the Liberal cabinet after failing to abandon his desire for party leadership.
However, at the following year’s party convention, when Chretien announced his impending retirement, Martin was chosen to take his place and appointed as Prime Minister in December of 2003.
In 2004, following an early election that pushed the Liberals into a minority government, Martin, along with the provincial premiers reached an agreement to bolster funding in healthcare with a $41 billion package delivered over the next 10 years. At the time, the deal was touted as the healthcare “fix for a generation.”
“That really was me saying to the Canadian people, you trusted me on the deficit, and now, I’m living up to my word,” Martin says.
Lessons from the barges
While the knowledge and experience Martin gained during his 20 years in the shipping business was put to good use during his post as Finance Minister, and during his early tenure as PM, it was the impact and the memories of those First Nations coworkers on the Mackenzie River that returned in 2005.
In that year, Martin would do something that no Canadian Prime Minister has been able to do before him, bring all representatives of Canada’s first inhabitants to the same table.
“I felt that the only way in which we are going to deal with this issue is if the First Nations, Metis and the Inuit are part and parcel of the answer,” he says.
The Kelowna Accord was created in 2005 after nearly 18 months of negotiations. The historic deal set out plans to eliminate the gaps between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians in the areas of education, healthcare, housing and economic opportunity.
“We talk a lot about the residential schools, which are just an awful thing, but since the residential schools, in the last 50 to 60 years, we’ve underfunded their education, we’ve underfunded their healthcare, we’ve underfunded their childcare,” Martin says. “My view is that, fundamentally, what we have to do is to build the partnership between Indigenous Canada and non-Indigenous Canada that was never built.”
The original release from Martin’s office in 2005, noted that Accord would lead to over $5 billion in spending over the following five years.
It was a historic moment, one that was heralded by First Nations and Inuit leaders as a giant leap forward.
However, the following year, the Liberals lost to the Progressive Conservatives under Stephen Harper who had opposed the passage of the Accord in the House.
The funding strategy laid out by Martin’s government was never implemented.
In 2008, Martin retired from politics, and looking back on it now, he doesn’t miss it.
“If you’re asking me if I liked politics, sometimes I liked it, but I very much like government, and there’s a huge difference. In government, you can do things,” he says. “I really love government, and I miss government, but I don’t miss politics”
And while his nearly lifelong goal of providing support to Indigenous Canada may have fallen short with the dismantling of the Kelowna Accord, that outcome may have set the pace for his future outside of politics.
“What I tried to do in Kelowna was to build the partnership, and obviously the election changed that, but I decided, okay, I’m no longer in government, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t right about the need to do this.”
Life as a former prime minister
Life as a Prime Minister is non-stop business, but for Martin, life as a former Prime Minster may be just the same, but it’s safe to say the 79-year-old is thriving.
Martin’s resume of advocacy work is as impressive as his political accomplishments, including serving as a commissioner for the Global Ocean Commission, an organization dedicated to dealing with the issues facing the oceans today; he serves as advisory council for the Coalition for Dialogue on Africa; and also chairs the British-Norweigan-Canadian poverty alleviation and sustainable development fund for the 10-nation Congo Basin Rainforest.
He’s been married to his wife Sheila for over 50 years, has three children and is a grandfather to five. And while he keeps himself busy with his advocacy work, there’s nothing quite like being able to spoil his grandkids, he says with a laugh.
Closer to home, Martin and his family started the Martin Aboriginal Initiative, designed to identify issues facing Aboriginal Canadians. Currently, the organization has a pair of funds aimed at providing support for Aboriginal education and economic development.
Martin has also been keeping a close eye on the efforts of the current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the efforts ongoing with the Truth and Reconciliation commission.
“An awful lot of us were worried that as with many of these commissions, it would just be put on a shelf and that would be the end of it. That’s not what happened,” he says.
And just like those moments on the tug barges in Canada’s north, discussions and experiences that changed Martin’s own young perspective, he hopes that these ongoing efforts of the government can have the same impact on all Canadians.
“I think it’s had a huge influence on the perspective of the country,” he says. “It’s the most important social issue we face. It’s also the most important economic issue we face.”