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Paul Martin gives Canadian schools a failing grade in history

Former Prime Minister Paul Martin gives an interview at the Liberal policy convention in Ottawa on Jan. 13, 2012.

Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Students are being shortchanged in their understanding of Canadian history, former prime minister Paul Martin says, stressing the need to revamp curriculums to include more about first nations.

Mr. Martin, who launched a native education foundation after retiring from federal politics in 2006, said the failure to teach aboriginal culture in off-reserve schools is clear.

"Should Canadian students be taught about the history of the Métis, the history of first nations and the history of the Inuit as a part of Canadian history? Absolutely," Mr. Martin told The Globe. "And that's also part of a wider question, which is: Do we teach Canadian history well in this classroom? And the answer to that is no."

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That's why the Martin Aboriginal Education Initiative partnered with Free the Children last year to deliver supplementary programs on first-nations education that schools can integrate into their provincial curriculums. More than 300 schools participated in the current academic year and Mr. Martin hopes the number doubles next time around.

The former prime minister and Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo both separately urged the federal government to deliver on their promise to close the funding gap between reserve and provincial schools in this month's budget.

"Should the government be allowed to wait? Absolutely not," Mr. Martin said.

His Liberal government signed the $5.1-billion agreement with provincial governments and aboriginal leaders known as the Kelowna Accord, but that was scrapped when the Conservatives came to power in 2006. The accord would have made first-nations education a priority.

"We've wasted six years, and the thing that is really frustrating is that this was all dealt with in the Kelowna Accord," he said.

Mr. Martin isn't the first to say that Canadian history curriculums need to be changed.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was established to reveal the lamentable record of church-run residential schools for aboriginal children, said all Canadians should be educated in this part of the country's history.

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In an interim report released in February, the commission's chair Mr. Justice Murray Sinclair said every province and territory review its public-school curriculum to assess what, if anything, is being taught about the residential schools and to develop age-appropriate educational material.

"There is a need to increase public awareness and understanding of the history of residential schools," Judge Sinclair said in the report.

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