Paul Martin was born in Windsor, Ontario, on August 28, 1938. He studied philosophy and history at St. Michael's College at the University of Toronto and graduated from the University of Toronto Law School. He was then called to the bar in 1966. He married Sheila Ann Cowan in 1965. Their three sons, Paul, Jamie, and David, were born in 1966, 1969, and 1974, respectively.

Prior to his political career, Martin worked as an executive at the Power Corporation of Canada in Montreal. The Power Corporation put up Canada Steamship Lines for sale in 1981, which Martin and a friend purchased for $180 million. Martin became Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the company.

Martin was first elected in 1988 as MP for LaSalle-Emard in Montreal, Quebec. In 1990, he finished second out of five candidates in the Liberal leadership race. From 1991 to 1993, Martin was Associate Finance Critic and Critic for the Environment for the Liberal opposition in the House of Commons. In 1993, he co-authored "Creating Opportunity: The Liberal Plan for Canada", also known as the "Red Book." The Liberals acquired power in 1993 and Martin was sworn in as the Minister of Finance, where he served from November 1993 until June 2002. He also served as Minister responsible for Quebec Regional Development from 1993 to 1996. In 1997-1998, Martin managed to balance the federal budget for the first time since the 1970s. In September 1999, Martin was named inaugural chair of the G-20, an international group composed of G-7 nations and emerging market nations.

On June 2, 2002, in a controversial cabinet shuffle, Prime Minister Jean Chretien replaced Martin (who was gearing up for a leadership campaign) with Deputy Prime Minister John Manley. Chretien maintained that it was a mutually agreed upon change, but Martin said he had not confirmed his departure and was travelling to Ottawa when he first heard of his dismissal on CBC Radio's "Cross Country Checkup". Despite Chretien's pre-emptive move to squash him, Martin continued campaigning for and won the Liberal leadership on November 14th, 2003, receiving a tremendous 93 per cent of the ballots. On December 12th, 2003, following Chretien's resignation, Martin became the 21st Prime Minister of Canada.