OTTAWA - Senator Gerry St. Germain knows first-hand the role a good education can play in lifting people out of poverty and despair.
"I grew up in a Metis community where there wasn't much hope, and there wasn't a very strong light at the end of the tunnel," said St. Germain.
But he had an aunt who "sort of grabbed me out and helped our family educate me."
"She had no children so she took me under her wing and put me into good Catholic schools. That really helped," he said in an interview.
From his experience growing up Metis in Manitoba, St. Germain said he can relate to what First Nations people are going through.
"There's nothing worse than living in a community where there's nothing and you look around and there's total poverty and despair."
That's why he hopes the recommendations in a report released Dec. 8 by the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples he chairs will find support.
Entitled Reforming First Nations Education: From Crisis to Hope, the report calls for the development of a First Nations Education Act that recognizes the authority of First Nations for on-reserve elementary and secondary education.
The act would also enable the development of a structure run by First Nations similar to the three-level structure of schools, school boards and a ministry of education.
Reforms are urgently needed to address the fact that aboriginal peoples represent the youngest and fastest growing demographic in Canada, the study stresses. Estimates suggest 600,000 First Nations children will be old enough to join the workforce in 2026. Improving their education will not only affect their personal outcomes but also that of Canada's labour force and overall productivity.
Right now the only level for on-reserve education is the schools, St. Germain said. There is no support structure such as a second-level school board and third-level ministry of education to set standards, train teachers and ensure accountability.
"There has to be a certain level of authority that flows from the structure, so standards can be set, and once standards are set they are maintained," St. Germain said.
In the report's foreword, St. Germain outlined the effect Canadian policies have had in eroding aboriginal peoples' traditional social and political systems. These policies "detribalized" First Nations peoples, and "ghettoized" them on small reserves that could not support them and that also separated them from the rest of Canadian society, he wrote.
Then the forced assimilation policies of Indian residential schools "deliberately disconnected them from the languages, cultures and traditions, ripped them from their homes, and, in far too many cases, brutalized aboriginal children," he wrote.
"Government after government continued this vicious cycle, killing the spirit, the heart and the soul of aboriginal people."
"Against this systematic onslaught, aboriginal peoples were eventually 'welfare-ized.' And the results is this horrific dilemma that we face today," he wrote.
St. Germain said he has spoken with native people from British Columbia, where he now lives, and elsewhere who managed to lead successful lives and asked them how they did it.
"Our grandparents would never accept welfare," St. Germain said they told him. "They wouldn't allow us to accept welfare, because they saw it as the steel bullet that would actually destroy us completely."
The approach of government setting the rules for aboriginal education and telling them to assimilate has failed miserably, he said.
"Now we have to work in partnership with First Nations in a way that takes into consideration their culture, their language and the various aspects of their lifestyles," he said. "Like in the Catholic schools, our spirituality is respected."
The report says seven out of 10 First Nations students will not graduate from high school; many will never attend a school that has a library, labs or a gym.
First Nations peoples living on reserves are the only Canadians who are not experiencing the benefits of a modern, well-equipped educational system, it says.