RUSSELL -- Isaac Brandon is a really bright youth from Waywayseecappo First Nation who's come up with an idea for a pen that carries extra cartridges for emergency injections of insulin.
Paul Martin was impressed.
The former prime minister doesn't impress all that easily.
But here were Martin and Brandon in the same classroom of Major Pratt School Wednesday, the fifth anniversary of the Martin Aboriginal Education Initiative, and Martin was in Russell for the formal official launch of the local program, which began in January.
An affable and avuncular Martin moved immediately into teaching mode.
SDLqWhat's the first advice you'd give Brandon?" he asked the class of First Nations students.
Patent it, someone said.
Martin slowly revealed the answer: Brandon needs to prove no one else had previously had the idea.
"Skylar, would you use this?" Martin asked student Skylar Seaton. "Do you know, in fact, it's not going to do more harm than good? How do you do it?"
Over the next 10 minutes, Martin led the students through the realization the product must be medically approved, government-certified, then advertised and promoted through doctors who would recommend it to their patients.
"How would you price it?" asked Martin.
That question led to all kinds of learning about material costs, the costs of research and development, manufacturing, advertising, labour and everything else that goes into business decisions.
"The concept of the course -- teaching entrepreneurship, marketing, accounting -- that in itself is not new," Martin had explained earlier. "None of this has ever been offered before to aboriginal Canadians, or, as we understand, to indigenous people anywhere."
Martin's project assigned aboriginal teachers to develop aboriginal textbooks and lesson plans that incorporate aboriginal culture and traditions.
At an assembly at Major Pratt, Martin told the students that prior to European contact, trade flourished from the Far North to the Gulf of Mexico along enormous trade routes. There was manufacturing of pottery and other goods along with a massive agricultural industry.
"For reasons that are inexplicable and unfair, First Nations and M©tis were shut out of the economy. First Nations and M©tis have business in their blood -- you have a huge history behind you, and it's a history of success," he said.
The idea of the business-oriented project is to keep young aboriginal students in school and offer them another path that could lead to post-secondary education and a career.
Just this week, Martin flew to Montreal, Lethbridge, Fort Simpson, The Pas, Grand Rapids, Russell and Winnipeg to promote the program.
He said it's up to aboriginal leaders and education authorities to invite his program into the community.
In Russell, Park West School Division and Waywayseecappo First Nation will sign an agreement May 27 to entrench a pilot project, believed to be unique in Canada, in which the reserve's nursery- to-Grade 8 school becomes part of the school division, and is funded at public school rates, while the band is a partner in all decision-making.
"There is absolutely no excuse for the federal government not to provide education funding," said Martin, adding he thought it was appalling Ottawa funds reserve schools 20 to 30 per cent less per student than children in the provincial system.
"That's immoral, and it's also economically dumb," he said.
Martin, the renowned slayer of deficits, is a little less emphatic when asked why he didn't eliminate that school-funding gap in his nine years as federal finance minister and his nearly 27-month stint as prime minister between 1993 to 2006. His Kelowna Accord would have done so, he said, referring to the agreement with provinces and native leaders reached in late 2005 just before his government fell.
Working together is essential, Martin told students in Russell.
During his time in the western Manitoba town, Martin was bubbling over with praise for Manitoba's Department of Education, and particularly for deputy education minister Gerald Farthing, who Martin said should be sent on a lecture tour across North America to talk about improving education opportunities for aboriginal youth.
"If we do this right," Farthing said in Russell, "the skills and knowledge that students leave with will be relevant. There is so much more we can do if we work together."
The Waywayseecappo and Park West partnership "is a model the rest of us should pay attention to," said Farthing.
"The Department of Education in Manitoba, I can't speak more highly of it," Martin said. "The innovation they've brought to aboriginal education is remarkable."