Aboriginal integration remains a challenge for Canadian universities

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Post-secondary attainment among Aboriginal and total population in Canada

In 2007, the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation outlined a series of challenges to student finance in Canada in a book titled, The Price of Knowledge: Access and Student Finance in Canada. These two graphs pertain to aboriginal education using information from the book.

Indigenous Services at Western is not the easiest office to locate on campus. Accessed through the glass staircase outside of The Spoke Lounge, this out-of-the-way place offers a refuge to Indigenous students on campus.

“There has been a lack of awareness and visibility within the past couple of years but this is beginning to change with the First Nations community here at Western,” Christina-Markie Mammoletti, First Nations commissioner for the University Students’ Council, said.

Other indigenous groups on campus echoed similar sentiments.

Today marks the last day for the third Aboriginal Policy Research Conference in Ottawa. Put together as joint effort by Western, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada and the National Association of Friendship Centres, the conference aims to address issues facing Aboriginals across Canada, including post-secondary education policies.

Jeremy Hull, president of Prologica Research " a Winnipeg consulting company specializing in socioeconomic issues " was one of the speakers at the conference. His involvement with researching aboriginal education systems and the resulting labour market outcomes led to his involvement in all three conferences.

“I think [APRC] has had a really good evolution,” Hull said. “I think the most recent conference was the best in terms of content and interaction.”

Hull noted the importance of interaction to his job as a researcher.

“If I’m writing something based on dry statistics and saying, ‘Here’s what I’ve concluded,’ and there’s someone in the audience who is a member of the Aboriginal community who says ‘you’re not really considering things from this point of view’ ... That interaction is really helpful,” he said.

The importance of such dialogue carries beyond the conference though. At Western, the evolution of First Nations Studies has been an important process on campus. With a perceived lack of awareness of the various issues facing members of the Indigenous community, the need for self-education cannot be overstressed.

“Often coming from a reserve community, students may feel disconnected from their cultural and spiritual identity as an Aboriginal-Canadian,” Mammoletti said.

Amanda Aikens, president of Western’s First Nations Student Association, agreed.

“Take the perspective of someone coming from Sioux Lookout,” Aikens explained. “You’re so far from your community ... you come here and you need to make those connections again.

“If you can’t [make those connections] through the school or through Indigenous Services then how are you going to do that? You’ll look to your professors and if you find a dead end then that’s really going to put you off.”

Ensuring aboriginal students are able to find a sense of belonging is a concern for the USC, explained USC VP-university affairs Jacqueline Cole.

“If there’s a culture of not supporting students while they’re here it’s more difficult to get them into the system,” Cole said.

But the problems facing aboriginal students can extend beyond the university environment, Vivian Peters, co-ordinator of Indigenous Services at Western, explained.

On-reserve First Nations youth reasons for not pursuing post-secondary education

“First of all, [aboriginal students] have to get through a public education system that largely doesn’t meet their needs,” Peters said. “There are some excellent programs in place, but they are few and far between.

“The other big piece that’s involved with [entering the post-secondary system] of course is the socioeconomic difficulties indigenous peoples are in, in the first place,” she explained, adding the socioeconomic issue contained its own historical issues compounded by a continuing colonial-style mentality.

Mammoletti agreed.

“Aboriginal communities do not often receive adequate resources for their citizens ... This leaves many aboriginal students behind as they struggle in post-secondary institutions where many of them are lost.”

According to Mammoletti, the specific identity and citizenship carried by aboriginal citizens brings with it a host of unique challenges that need to be addressed through services and programs catering to the needs of aboriginal students as they transfer to the post-secondary environment.

Peters illustrated this point.

“The assumption is that it’s always a good thing for indigenous people to walk into a university and just decide to take courses and learn in a non-Native environment ... That’s always seen as the de facto education plan.”

But, she explained, the situation would compare to a non-Native student choosing to fully immerse him or herself into First Nations Studies.

“Most people would think: ‘Why would I go study everything indigenous? I’m not sure why I would want to do that.’ Yet the expectation is that indigenous people would come away with a university degree after having that experience,” she said.

Aikens noted Indigenous Services was doing a lot to create a more accommodating environment at Western. By working to enhance the connections between local elders, teachers and students in the London community with the First Nations Studies program at Western, the service could make the academic environment of Western more accessible. She also expressed the importance of the service at the individual level.

“I think what Indigenous Services provides right now, once you actually find us, is wonderful. To have a group of people to talk to … where you feel like they know where you’re coming from, is extremely important,” Aikens explained.

The First Nations community on campus is also working to raise their profile, including an annual Powwow this Saturday at Alumni Hall.

Above all, both Indigenous Services and the FNSA have expressed the need for awareness.

“I believe awareness is helpful,” Aikens said.

“If no one knows there’s a problem, how can we start to fix it?”

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