06/10/2016 05:50 EDT | Updated 06/11/2017 05:12 EDT

Paul Martin Talks About Reconnecting With Aboriginal People

Former Prime Minister Paul Martin salutes the audience during a tribute to the former leader at the Liberal Leadership Convention Thursday, Nov. 30, 2006 in Montreal. (AP Photo/CP,Adrian Wyld)

Hitch hiking across Canada as a teen, Paul Martin took a summer job as a deckhand on a tug boat in Canada's far north, toiling elbow-to-elbow alongside Dene First Nation, Inuit and Métis crew. When the work was done, he'd talk with them late into the night. His mates were friendly and smart, but the young Martin saw a sense of hopelessness in them. Most had been crushed by years in residential schools.

That experience sparked a passion for aboriginal issues that never faded, even after Martin became Canada's 21st Prime Minister.

After their time in office, most PMs have opted to resume lucrative careers, returning to successful businesses or law practices. Martin has chosen a different path. His life's mission is to create opportunities for indigenous youth through his own non-profit, the Martin Aboriginal Education Initiative (MAEI).

We've partnered with MAEI on a campaign called We Stand Together, promoting national reconciliation by educating young Canadians across the country about indigenous issues. Two weeks ago, we watched Martin choke up with emotion as he talked about indigenous issues with youth at an aboriginal cultural center in Montreal. We spoke to Martin about how Canadians can connect with and support First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples.

Why do we all need to care about aboriginal issues?

Our values say that we give all Canadians an equal chance. We're not doing this with the aboriginal population. This is really a violation of all the values that we proclaim to the world.

How can average Canadians support indigenous communities?

Canadians should seek to understand how the problems have occurred, and what the challenges are in communities like Attawapiskat. And then, unequivocally, Canadians have to speak out for needed funding. None of us would be where we are if we hadn't received free public school education. And the fact is, the federal government underfunds aboriginal health care and education, and that's obviously going to have huge effects on communities like Attawapiskat.

If there are [aboriginal] communities nearby, mentoring students in grade and high school is a huge benefit. And there are all kinds of programs that people could donate to.

What would you add to curriculum to better teach students about aboriginal people?

I wouldn't limit education to indigenous history or going into museums. Indigenous people don't live in museums. I would take [students] into communities and get them to sit down and meet young people their own age.

What books or films can help Canadians better understand aboriginal people?

Authors Joseph Boyden and Thomas King have written outstanding books. I would also recommend books by Rupert Ross (a former Ontario crown attorney) about his evolution from being a Canadian who didn't know very much about aboriginal issues, and over time really understanding them. For films, I'd recommend Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner). It's the first Inuktitut language feature film, and it won an award at the 2001 Cannes film festival. Another excellent one is Edmund Metatawabin's Up Ghost River, which is all about residential schools and abuse.

What are some must-see indigenous destinations for Canadians?

Ninstints is a small island off the west coast of Queen Charlotte Island. There are remains of houses with carved memorial poles that show the living culture of the Haida, and their relationship to the land and the sea.

How can Canada's 150th celebrations recognize indigenous contributions to our country?

The First Nations, the Inuit nations and the Metis people should be officially recognized as founding nations of Canada, along with the French and the English.

This interview has been edited and abbreviated.

Brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger founded a platform for social change that includes the international charity, Free The Children, the social enterprise, Me to We, and the youth empowerment movement, We Day. Visit for more information.

Follow HuffPost Canada Blogs on Facebook