Stepping through the doors of the the University of Alberta's Power Plant was a warm relief for those who gathered there on a recent, typical, hostile Edmonton winter evening.
Inside, patrons were brought face-to-face with Parliament Hill, cabinet shuffles and national security in the form of Canada's federal Finance minister, who came in out of the cold on Tue., Jan. 15 to meet and mingle with a small crowd of enthusiastic post-secondary students.
"Students are by far the most fun to discuss issues with," said a cheerful Martin, looking utterly at home in suit and tie, surrounded by pint-toters and tee-totallers. "It gives me the chance to really have an informal discussion. I spoke to the MBA class [at U of A] and that gave me the chance to have an exchange and then come on down and have a different kind of discussion here."
Martin's visit was hosted and coordinated by the U of A Student Liberal Association, who also received the minister in 2001. Martin first completed a speaking engagement and Q and A with members of the U of A Business School before easing over to the student bar for more relaxed interaction with his supporters.
"January, when Parliament is out of session, is when the ministers like to travel the country, keep their ears close to the ground and listen to the concerns of Canadians," explained Howard Yeung, Vice-President Communications of the SLA. "Today the minister took up our standing invitation to meet with young Canadians, he was here to listen to our concerns; we received the minister last year and we're glad that he returned to follow-up on some of our issues."
Former Industry minister Brian Tobin was also scheduled to speak at the U of A but cancelled all engagements in the wake of his resignation from politics on Mon., Jan 14. Minister Martin expressed both regret over the resignation but anticipation of the changes it prompted.
"We're going to miss Brian [Tobin], but I wish him well in everything he's going to do," said Martin. "I think in the cabinet shuffle, there were a number of very important appointments including Anne McLellan's appointment [as Minister of Health]. I think the top priority of Canadians is health care and I can't think of anybody better to deal with it than Anne McLellan."
Jeffrey Copenace, assistant to the Minister on Aboriginal and Northern Affairs, explained that due to the events of September 11, Martin's concerns for health care and education spending had to be somewhat curtailed.
"Prior to September 11, the Minister was looking at a lot of his Redbook 1993 promises and looking at focusing the budget around them," said Copenace. "He was really looking at spending in the post-secondary area, increased spending in the health care areas, further increased spending for the aboriginal peoples of Canada and unfortunately with September 11, he was forced to claw back a bit on some of his aspirations as far as the budget's concerned."
Nonetheless, added Copenace, education and access to education remain the minister's top concern.
"Education as a whole is the minister's number one priority," he said. "Not just going to university but making sure that all Canadians have the same privilege, to benefit from education. It's a key priority to ensure that not only mainstream Canadian society has access to education, but all aspects of society including the aboriginal demographic, the ethnic community and Canadians in all conditions."
Copenace also pointed out the importance of maintaining dialogue with students.
"[The Minister] has visited many different campuses over quite a few months," said Copenace. "He's very dedicated to not only the issue [of post-secondary education] but receiving input from the students themselves. He really believes that the best ideas to solve this problem are going to come from the students and educators themselves."