06/01/2016 02:37 EDT | Updated 06/01/2016 03:59 EDT

Paul Martin Rejects Jean Chrétien's Suggestion That People Should Leave Attawapiskat

"They should leave the reserves without a decent education?"

In the wake of a wave of suicide attempts in Attawapiskat in April, former prime minister Jean Chretien, as well as various columnists and countless commenters, have suggested the solution is for "some people" to leave their land.

"It's not easy, it's difficult, there is no economic base there for having jobs and so on," he said during a visit to Parliament Hill, "and sometimes they have to move, like anybody else."

Chrétien, who was also minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development from 1968 to 1974, was subsequently called an "assimilationist" in the House of Commons by NDP MP Niki Ashton.

Former prime minister discusses indigenous education. (Photo: The Huffington Post Canada)

HuffPost Canada sat down to discuss this controversial idea and other potential solutions to the crisis with former prime minister Paul Martin, who has spent his post-government years heading the Martin Aboriginal Education Initiative. He was in Toronto to speak at Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business's Hot Topic series on indigenous education.

Some people, former prime minister Jean Chretien among them, have been calling on remote First Nations to leave communities like Attawapiskat and come to the city. What is your response?

They should leave the reserves without a decent education? Are they going to come down to the big city competing with kids who got that decent education? They're gonna leave the reserve without decent health care and they're going to come down here and meet kids who have had that health care all their lives?

The choice of whether you stay on reserve or leave the reserve should be up to the individual concerned.

And why wouldn't they stay? Most people who leave eventually go back to their homes. But the choice isn't going to be made by us, the choice should be made by the individual themselves. And you know what's going to happen if they have a good education and good health care? They are going to find a reason to stay and be able to build the businesses that will enable them to stay.

Q&A continues after slideshow

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It's quite a statement to say abandon your ancestral home, where your family has been for generations. You've got this little bit of land left why don't you leave it behind and come to the city?

Just give them the same chance that every other Canadian has had. There are outstanding indigenous business people in this country. There are outstanding philosophers, theoreticians, mathematicians. I know an astrophysicist who is one of the leading astrophysicists in North America who is First Nations. When he was a child he was given up on, they said this kid could never learn but he had a foster mother who apparently gave him the will to do it. These kinds of cases are all over the place.

Our role is to make sure they can live up to the hopes and the dreams that they have. If we put the money into education, health care and child welfare, they'll do that.

What do you think prompts that attitude, that there are no jobs and they should just leave, which is so different from your attitude, which is to give them support so they can stay?

Well, this is rooted in Canadian history. At the time of Confederation, the decision was taken by the Canadian government that what they wanted to do was assimilate them. They were going to use the education system to do it, and what a gross misuse of the education system. That led to 150 years of the kinds of degradation that these people have gone through.

And you want to know how strong they are? They're still fighting for their culture, they're still fighting for their languages and an enormous number of them are succeeding.

This really shows the backbone and the guts that they have. But the problem is — in Eastern Canada, especially — aboriginal Canadians have been almost invisible. It isn't a function of discrimination against them, it's [as if] they don't exist. [Non-First Nations people] don't think about them. The situation is much better known out in Western Canada where they are far more indigenous Canadians.

That's why one of the programs we've put into place is a thing called We Stand Together [a collaboration with Free the Children] to teach aboriginal history.

For us to understand the worldview of the people who were here when [Europeans] came is absolutely crucial to us as Canadians understanding who we are. That's only going to happen if we teach it in schools, and more and more you're seeing provincial governments saying they are going to do that.

I will tell you that will change the attitudes of people who just don't know that indigenous Canadians exist.

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