Setting the Example, an Interview with Former PM, Paul Martin

This post was originally featured on SocialFinance.ca. It details my interview with PM Paul Martin, a Keynote speaker at the 2013 Social Enterprise World Forum. 

While in government, Canada’s 21st prime minister fought for Aboriginal rights, working with indigenous leaders to improve rates of healthcare, education and housing. In 2005, near the end of his tenure in government, Paul Martin announced the  $5.085 billion Kelowna Accord, a landmark agreement that had been reached through an 18-month collaborative process with a variety of aboriginal leaders.

In 2006, the Liberal party was defeated and Martin announced that he would not lead the party into another election. With an entirely different set of priorities, the newly-elected Prime Minister Stephen Harper terminated the plan.

Reflecting upon his ambitions post-Office, Martin vowed to devote the rest of his career to working alongside aboriginal Canadians, government officials and business leaders alike to empower Canada’s First Nations peoples. Telephoning from Ottawa in late August, Martin explained this decision in the matter-of-fact tone, typical of the former finance minister.

“I think that the aboriginal situation in Canada is the single most important social issue—and one of the most important economic issues—that we face,” he said.

“—That we would allow the youngest and the fastest growing segment of our population to live in a state where government policy acts in overt discrimination against them—whether it’s in health care, in education, in welfare—I just think it is so contrary to everything that we as Canadians say we stand for. And it is certainly contrary everything that I believe.”

In 2008, in partnership with his son David Martin, a successful business professional in his own right, the duo launched the Cape Fund, a $50 million private-sector investment fund aimed at empowering aboriginal Canadians. Nearly five years after the launch of the fund, I had the chance to speak with Mr. Martin about the fund’s progress and about aboriginal entrepreneurship and education.

The launch of the Cape Fund

“I  recognized that many aboriginal Canadians had great entrepreneurial skills to get into business,” Martin explained, “[and] when I left government I had the idea to start [the Cape Fund].”

In 2006/07 Martin and his son searched for investors for their prospective fund, a venture with a threefold purpose: to encourage aboriginal social entrepreneurship, to gradually increase aboriginal ownership and control over the businesses that the fund would invest in, and to help build management capacity among aboriginal people.

In 2008, the Cape fund was launched with the support of 21 major institutional players from a variety of different sources; among them: Scotiabank Group, Skoll, BMO Financial Group and Barrick.

Investing in aboriginal entrepreneurs

In January 2009, the Cape Fund completed its first investment—a $3 million investment in common shares of One Earth Farms Corp as part of a $15 million strategic financing.

At the time of the announcement, Martin expressed his excitement in the collaborative partnership model. “This transaction, CAPE Fund’s first investment, will support a unique model for Aboriginal business, allowing First Nations to participate actively and with a strong degree of influence in helping to build a successful, world-class enterprise,” he said.

Since its founding in 2007, One Earth Farms has become the largest corporate farming operation in Canada, relying heavily on the stable, long-term partnership with First Nations communities.

In conversation, Martin also expressed enthusiasm about the work of Manitobah Mukluks, another one of the ventures in which the Cape Fund has invested. The Winnipeg based, Métis owned venture manufactures native designed mukluks, moccasins and accessories.

Peter Forton, Managing Director of the Cape Fund, explained that the Cape Fund team had been motivated to invest in the venture in part because of the spirit and determination of Manitobah’s President and majority owner, Sean McCormick.

“We saw an aboriginal entrepreneur who was on fire, and who was truly setting an example for his community,” explained Forton.

Now, three years since the initial investment, according to Forton, sales have more than doubled in the manufactured aboriginally-designed mukluks and moccasins.

“We’ve been working very closely with Sean to help him build his business. It’s great for us to be successful, but really what motivates [the community] to succeed and to change is when they see their own people succeeding. Peer success is so important. If we can help him succeed, we can help a lot of other people succeed as well,” Forton stated.

The path forward

“I think Cape is doing reasonably well and I think that people are beginning to understand the potential for social enterprise and indigenous Canadians,” explained Martin, “but if you were to say to me, ‘have we reached the top of Mt. Everest?’ I would say that we’ve gotten to basecamp, but we still have a long climb.”

In order to reach the top of Everest, Martin explained, a few things need to happen.

“First off, I think that people like Cape have got to continue to succeed.”

“On the indigenous side,” Martin continued, “there needs to be the recognition that communities can play a substantial role in social enterprise, but that most social enterprise occurs as a result of an individual social entrepreneur who just has an obsession to succeed. What that means is that for social enterprise to really function, we’ve got to see a lot more individuals taking the leap.”

Seeking to encourage more aboriginal Canadians to embark on a journey of social entrepreneurship, Martin has also played a substantial role in the Martin Aboriginal Education Initiative (MAEI), a series of programs seeking to improve elementary and secondary school education outcomes for Aboriginal Canadians.

“The earlier that you can begin to take entrepreneurship and all aspects of business to young aboriginal Canadians, the better off you’re going to be. There’s no doubt that that that familiarity at an early age, as is the case with everything else, is best,” Martin stated.

With this philosophy in mind, MAEI brings together Aboriginal organizations, members of the business community, post-secondary institutions, First Nation schools and provincially and territorially-funded school boards to implement programs to support Aboriginal students.

One of the MAEI iniaitives, the Aboriginal Youth Entrepreneurship Program (AYEP), works with high school students, providing business and entrepreneurship training and encouraging the young leaders pursue postsecondary studies.

With great pride, Martin described one of the innovative approaches that the AYEP program has taken, seeking to provide examples of Aboriginal entrepreneurship in action.

“We had been doing [the AYEP program] in 2-3 schools and we basically asked two of our teachers to take a year off, to take our course, (which was based on provincial business courses that were based on a concept that developed the United States and was in some 14 countries) and our teachers essentially wrote up the workbooks for grade 11 and 12 completely in an aboriginal context.”

“They used aboriginal role models, medicine wheels, and other aboriginal examples and as a result of that—when young people were able to see entrepreneurship not in an American, a British, or even in the context of other Canadians—but in a context of their own lives—it just took off. It just took off.”

“I think it demonstrates that entrepreneurship is part and parcel of the makeup of the Aboriginal Canadians.”

Moving forward, both Martin and Forton remain optimistic about the potential of the continued development of the Cape Fund and the MAEI initiatives, and of the future for Aboriginal entrepreneurship.

“I’ve seen quite a change in the last five years,” Martin explained.

“I think that there is an opening today that there wasn’t five years ago and that hopefully will be there even stronger in five years.”