Monarch Park Collegiate acted as host to kick off the We Stand Together campaign launch Tuesday in partnership with the Martin Aboriginal Education Initiative (MAEI) and Free the Children.
The campaign celebrates Aboriginal history, culture and tradition in an effort to raise awareness of Aboriginal issues.
Former prime minister Paul Martin was joined by his son, David; Waneek Horn Miller, Olympian and Aboriginal rights activist; and Craig Kielburger, founder of Free the Children to discuss and educate area students about the third annual We Stand Together campaign.
“There is a clear gap between what many non-Aboriginal Canadians understand about the issues and circumstances faced by Aboriginal people,” said Martin, the MAEI founder, to a crowd of students from the host school, White Oaks Secondary School, Samuel Hearne Middle School and the Toronto District School Board Aboriginal Education Centre.
“We Stand Together is a grassroots initiative that starts right inside the classroom to teach young Canadians the significance of Aboriginal history, helping to close this gap, foster understanding and raise awareness of Aboriginal culture and history in Canada for generations to come.”
The impetus for the MAEI had its roots in Martin’s youth, when he worked as a student on barges in Northern Canada – from Hay River to the Beaufort Sea. During the summer months while Martin worked as a seaman saving money to attend university, his co-workers were mainly Aboriginal Canadians, Inuits and Metis. He would come to learn a great deal about their customs, cultures and beliefs during the summers, but one lesson always stood out.
“We would talk about life as we saw it,” Martin said. “We would talk about science and I would talk about this new invention on the scene, the television, but they would talk about the stars and how their elders taught them how to navigate using them.”
Therein Martin began to learn about their differences, but he realized, as he would look toward the future, his fellow co-workers never considered what their future held.
“These young men would not attend university and none would graduate from high school,” Martin said.
“Decent schooling wasn’t there to give them, and this was 40 to 50 years ago,” Martin said, noting that in the decades to pass, not much would change.
Martin would approach Craig Kielburger, a children’s activist known for helping students worldwide, to help him build his initiative.
“Since 2009, We Stand Together has been embraced by hundreds of schools across the country, “ Kielburger said.
“Ninety per cent of these educators reported an increased awareness of Aboriginal issues among students and 78 per cent felt better equipped to teach their students about Aboriginal issues.
“We Stand Together encourages students and teachers to include Aboriginal issues in their everyday discussions.”
Even though strides have been made in Aboriginal education, both Martin and Kielburger said the road ahead is still long, with high rates of poverty, crime and suicide among Aboriginal youth.
“The Aboriginal community is the fastest growing population,” Martin said.
“We need to address these issues and see that Aboriginal youth have the same opportunities as non-Aboriginal students.”
We Stand Together is a 10-day celebration, from Feb. 25 to March 8, that joins with the MAEI and invites teachers, students and parents across the country to learn about the challenges, as well as the achievements being made.
“There is no doubt that education is a part of the answer, not all of it, but a part of it,” Martin said.