An alarming number of First Nations students living on reserves are not graduating from high school, a recently released report says.

According to the report of the Ottawa-based Caledon Institute of Public Policy — titled Aboriginal Peoples and Post-secondary Education in Canada —high school graduation rates of aboriginal people are far below those of people in the rest of Canada, and the situation is particularly bad on reserves.

The report, which is based on census data, found that 58 per cent of on-reserve aboriginal people between the ages of 20 and 24 had not graduated from high school. Among all people across Canada, the comparable 2001 rate was 16 per cent.

In Saskatchewan and Alberta, the on-reserve rate for people 20-24 with less than high school was 61 per cent. In Manitoba, it was 71 per cent.

"The reality is not great," said researcher Michael Mendelson, who authored the report. "I was surprised, frankly, at the result."

It's something all Canadians should be deeply concerned about, Mendelson added.

The economy is evolving, and in the future virtually every job, even minimum wage jobs, will require a higher level of knowledge than is presently needed, he said.

Urgent action needed

Mendelson said urgent action is needed, including the increased establishment of school boards on reserves.

First Nations, governments and other organizations must also work together to set measurable goals for improving education from kindergarten to Grade 12and then work towards achieving them.

Some peoplequestion Mendelson's statistics, however.

Saskatchewan MP Gary Merasty said he doesn't think the situation on reserves is as dire as Mendelson's report suggests.

The former grand chief of the Prince Albert Tribal Council noted that among 33 on-reserve schools that were under his tribal council's jurisdiction, the Grade 12 graduation rate increased from 34 per cent to 92 per cent between 1998 and 2004.

"We're seeing huge increases in the number of students graduating," he said.

Still, he agreed that on-reserve schools are facing challenges— such as providing a full slate of high school classes with limited resources— and these need to be addressed.