On September 29, the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB) and Sodexo Canada presented former Prime Minister Paul Martin the first-ever Award for Excellence in Aboriginal Relations at its ninth annual Vancouver gala dinner. He received the award for his involvement with the development of the Aboriginal communities through the Martin Aboriginal Initiative (MAI).

The MAI has been working on two fronts to promote prosperity in Native communities. The first being the Martin Aboriginal Education Initiative (MAEI), which focuses on improving local schools and providing role models for the next generation. The second approach is through the Capital for Aboriginal Prosperity and Entrepreneurship (CAPE) fund which promotes entrepreneurship and financial independence for Aboriginal peoples.

Long before he got into politics, Martin was working toward building bridges with Native people. In his youth, Martin made lifelong friends among the young Aboriginals, Métis and Inuit working north of 60 during his summers. As a founding member of the CCAB, he understood that for Canada to be strong it has to promote economic development among the youngest and fastest growing segment of the population.

In 2006, the problems affecting First Nations were put on the table during an unprecedented and historic occasion for Canada known as the Kelowna Accord. Needless to say, the Kelowna Accord has been put on hold by the Harper administration and the process for development was stalled. As Martin put it, “It was a tragedy.”

Martin pointed out how during the discussions at Kelowna the subject of the underfunded education system was brought up and yet nearly six years later the system is still underfunded. It is because of the work Martin did afterwards through his initiatives that has partially fixed what was meant to be fixed by the accord that he has been chosen to receive the award.

When asked about the award, Martin said, “I’m honoured, very much so. But it’s important to realize that this is not an honour just for me. This is really an honour that is made to the people who are working to make CAPE a success. It’s an honour to the people who are working at MAEI in the education initiative from those running the organization to the teachers and students.”

The goal of MAEI is to cultivate within young Aboriginals the knowhow to start a business, work in marketing and learn accounting principles. The hope is that these students eventually launch their own businesses and give back to their communities as role models. When the next generation of Aboriginals begins leading the way in Canadian industries, it will continue to pay out in dividends by inspiring more youth.

To reach these goals MAEI has started a pilot project in two model school in southwestern Ontario to work on improving literacy and numeracy. These projects are meant to test the water and see just what it takes to improve the education system. It has already helped create the first “by Aboriginal, for Aboriginal” school textbook which is a first in Canada.

Being a two-pronged approach, the MAI follows students after they finish their education and are preparing to make the leap forward. The CAPE fund was started by Martin and his family and 21 of Canada’s top companies in order to foster business growth and opportunity among Aboriginals.

Its main goal is to invest in enterprises with a high degree of Native involvement. Some of the investments include One Earth Farms from the Prairies which intends on becoming the biggest and most efficient operating farm in cooperation with First Nations. In Winnipeg, CAPE is working with Manitobah, a Métis-owned fashion company. They combine Native-inspired design with Canada’s internationally recognized brand of superior quality.

As for investments in Quebec, CAPE doesn’t have any but Martin pointed out, “We’re only getting started.”

On the education side of things, MAEI is in deep negotiations with the Quebec government as well as various Aboriginal organizations. The intention is to begin as soon as possible.

The work Martin and his organizations have put into improving the education and increasing opportunities for Aboriginals is truly inspiring. The main lesson behind all of this is that Canada has plenty to gain from working with Aboriginals. If not because of the moral issue but also because it will guarantee a brighter and more prosperous future for Canada as a whole.