Gerry St. Germain's story begins in "Petit Canada" on the shores of the Assiniboine, growing up with his two younger sisters, his mother and his father--a shy Metis trapper and construction worker who sometimes struggled to put food on the table. St. Germain was initially troubled in school, scrapping with classmates and often skipping out to shoot pool, but an aunt and uncle with some extra cash paid his tuition to Catholic school, where a nun recognized his aptitude for math and encouraged him to pursue his dreams. He would go on to become an air force pilot, undercover policeman and West Coast chicken farmer. Business gave way to politics, and in 1988 he became one of a tiny number of Aboriginal Canadians named to a federal cabinet. That milestone was just one of many for a man who played a critical role in Canada's Conservative movement for a generation.
From the Brian Mulroney era to the roller-coaster leadership of Kim Campbell, then to the collapse of the Progressive Conservative party in 1993 and the subsequent rebuilding of the movement under Stephen Harper, St. Germain remained a trusted confidant of prime ministers and a crucial and often daring behind-the-scenes broker in bringing warring factions together. But he is most proud of his efforts during his later years in the Senate, when he was a quiet hero to Canada's Aboriginal community. He spearheaded major Senate reports on key issues like land claims and on-reserve education during the Harper era, when there were few friendly faces for First Nations leaders on Parliament Hill. That role reflected St. Germain's profound determination to help people who are still dealing today the brutal legacy of residential schools and the paternalistic Indian Act. Memories of his humble beginnings, and the shame he once felt over his Metis heritage, bubbled to the surface in his final address to Canada's Parliament in 2012, when he said in a voice quaking with emotion: "I am a Metis."
Peter O'Neil is a veteran national affairs correspondent with the Vancouver Sun and the former Paris-based Europe correspondent for Postmedia News. He is winner of a 2005 Jack Webster Award for political feature writing and the recipient of a Citation of Merit at the 2012 National Newspaper Awards for his investigative look at Conservative environmental policies. He has been in Ottawa covering Parliament Hill since 1988.
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