A young First Nation boy caught Paul Martin's ear.
“'Before you went into politics you were a lawyer and then the president of Canada Steamship Lines, right?'” said the boy to Canada's former Prime Minister. “'How did you, as a lawyer, know anything about shipping?'” he asked.
Martin told the boy he worked for a shipping company where the people taught him all about it. It was called mentoring.
The young fellow responded by asking “'Do you think anyone would ever mentor me?'”
Martin said “yes,” although he didn't really know how if that would happen.
The boy then said, “'I also read later on that you bought the company. You must have had a lot of money?'”
Martin said “No, I didn't have any money at all actually, I borrowed it all.”
The boy then said “'Do you think if I learned a business that someone would lend me money?'”
Again, Martin said “yes” unsure that that would happen.
Then it dawned on him: First Nations do not have the same opportunities to learn business and mentorship as the rest of Canadians and they certainly would not have the same opportunities to borrow money.
Something had to be done to fill this gap.
Enter Capital for Aboriginal Prosperity and Entrepreneurship Fund or CAPE Fund.
“The purpose of CAPE is to provide the upfront money for Aboriginals to buy a company, but also learn how to run it with the idea that once they learn how, we would sell our investment to them, then go onto the next thing,” said Martin in an exclusive interview with Northern Ontario Business.
An independent management team including David Tucker and Bob Dickson is backed by five major Canadian banks with some familiar Northern Ontario faces such as Xstrata Nickel, Vale Inco and Goldcorp.
Each business opportunity must be seen by the investment committee to have long term economic sustainability and a clear, defined market niche as well as a realistic and complete business plan.
“This is not charity,” Martin said. “It is being run as a private equity fund and while its primary goal is a social one, and that is to create Aboriginal entrepreneurs, it still has to earn a financial return.”
Eventually, it will be clear that backing Aboriginal businesses will be a good thing to do, he said.
Martin will have a role in choosing some of the First Nation or Aboriginal candidates, but the real decision making process will be up to the committee who intends on bringing Canadian businesses into the Aboriginal fold and providing mentorship where necessary.
“We want to see these businesses run by Aboriginals.”
The recognition of Aboriginal cultures is a significant component to growing First Nation entrepreneurs.
“We have a lot to learn from Aboriginal cultures just as they have a lot to learn about from non-Aboriginals.”
Canadian people and institutions have attempted to conform First Nation into following “our” footsteps, but it hasn't worked because no one is going to accept someone who will come in and impose their beliefs, he said.
“For us to simply say that we are going to build a strong country and at the same time marginalize the youngest and the fastest growing segment of our population is nonsensical. ”
Eventually, there will be parts of Northern Canada that will be very heavily dependent on First Nation or Aboriginal Canadians employment, he said.
“And why shouldn't they be the bosses or owners?”
But building the trust is an issue. Martin said the young Aboriginals are born with hope and then over time they see life is really geared against them.
If Canadians can reach them when they are young, by providing opportunities and reasons to hope, “then I think we can turn it around.”
It may not happen overnight, but it can happen within this generation, he said.
Martin has always been passionate about Aboriginals and First Nation's plight.
When he was in office as Prime Minister, he along with premiers from all of the territories and provinces and First Nation leaders were in the process of insituting the Kelowna Accord, however when the Conservatives came to office the initiatives was put on the shelf. Martin still believes the Accord will come to pass.
“If Canadians understood that we were substantially underfunding primary and secondary school education (for First Nations), I don't think they would stand for it,” Martin said.
After retiring from politics, Martin has undertaken some United Nation projects. Recently, he returned from Africa with British and Norwegians officials with an aim to preserve the African rain forest in the Congo.
“My priority is not the Third world back in Africa, but the Third World back in Canada and that is the Aboriginals.”
It has been said that the best way to kill a culture is to give them a cheque every month.
Canadian history has been riddled with the attempts of breaking Aboriginal or First Nation societies, stripping them of their language, traditions and attacking their government and religion, Martin stated in his book Hell or High Water.
“Systematically we ripped children from the bosom of their families and cut them off from their heritage and then subjected many of these children to degradation and abuse.”
Martin and Canadian leaders want to change this and welcome in a new era of inclusion, equality and mentorship for First Nations. Sounds like the Kelowna Accord may be surfacing after all.