'Role Models' talk about their experiences in postsecondary education for the Take Your Future Further campaign launched Feb. 2, 2016. (Curtesy Council of Ontario Universities)

‘Role Models’ talk about their experiences in postsecondary education for the ‘Let’s Take Our Future Further’ campaign launched Feb. 2, 2016. (Courtesy Council of Ontario Universities)

This version of the article corrects an error in paragraph 22,  “courses on Indigenous heritage” has been corrected with “Indigenous Studies.”

The Council of Ontario Universities (COU) has launched a public awareness campaign encouraging Indigenous youth to apply to university.

Ryerson University is one of 20 publicly-funded universities included in the “Let’s Take Our Future Further” campaign that spans across the province.

Only ten per cent of the self-identified Indigenous population between the ages of 24 to 64 hold a university degree or certificate at bachelor level compared to 27 per cent of Canada’s non-Indigenous population, according to Statistics Canada.

I think many aboriginal communities and aboriginal community members think that university is not accessiblethat it is not for them,” said Jonathan Hamilton-Diabo, chair of the COU group behind the campaign and director of University of Toronto’s First Nations House. “They don’t see themselves represented throughout any of the institutions.”

Through a series of short videos that feature members of Indigenous (First Nations, Métis and Inuit) communities talking about their post-secondary achievements, the campaign hopes to encourage the younger generation to enrol in university, while also  celebrating the accomplishments of Indigenous students and alumni. The Future Further website serves as a resource portal to help Indigenous youth learn about what each university offers in terms of cultural specific courses and services.

“It is showcasing that there is a different story to aboriginal communities that I think a lot of people aren’t aware of,” Hamilton-Diabo said.

The campaign follows a report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which highlights the educational gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians. These gaps have resulted in inequitable access to post-secondary education for Indigenous students.

“The work of the TRC, as well as the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, underscore the important role that education plays in building and sustaining communities and realizing true reconciliation in the future for our collective past,” said Reza Moridi, Ontario’s Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities, in a press release.

Before European settlement, Indigenous youth received education through traditional means, like participating in cultural and spiritual rituals, skills development and oral teachings passed down through elders.

The forced assimilation of Indigenous people into Canada’s European-style education system is largely viewed by the public as a  history, disassociated with present day. Hamilton-Diabo said that the trauma caused by the residential school system has created a mistrust among Indigenous communities that is still felt today.

For survivors who have had children, it has caused “some turmoil within communities and in families,” said Hamilton-Diabo.

Julianna Alton, a third-year history student and member of the Indigenous Students’ Association at Ryerson, said she is the only one out of her Indigenous high school peers to pursue post-secondary education. It was her parents who encouraged her to go to university.

“For Indigenous students, school is seen as something that has been pushed on you. So you have that push back from the younger generation,” Alton said. “Then there is that self-doubt that if I do (attend university), I am not Indigenous or I am going against being Indigenous.”

She says the campaign is good in theory, but doesn’t address the high dropout rate in high school which is a barrier preventing students from accessing postsecondary education.

While different Indigenous communities experience different barriers, financial issues and a lack of funding available to Indigenous students also contributes to youth not seeing university as a realistic option, said Hamilton-Diabo.

Despite some progress, the high school dropout rate for First Nations students in Canada is 30 per cent, three times the rate for non-Indigenous students, according to a report released by C.D. Howe Institute in 2014.The Métis rate is 20 per cent. On reserves funded by Ottawa, the rate increases to 58 per cent.

Peter Alphonse, the Aboriginal Liaison Recruitment Officer and a member of the Ryerson Aboriginal Student Services, said recruitment of Indigenous students in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) is “very critical.”

The GTA is home to the largest and most diverse population of Indigenous communities. According to the 2006 Census, there were 31,910 Indigenous people living in the GTA and a large percentage of those were children and youth. As increasing numbers of Indigenous people move off-reserve and into more urban areas, that number continues to grow.

“It will be important for any university to undertake and seek partnerships with community-based programs or schools to make it known that Ryerson has programs that will benefit (Indigenous students) if they are interested,” said Alphonse.

From September to December each year, Alphonse said he and other Indigenous representatives from Ontario universities travel throughout the province to high schools and Indigenous communities to “strongly encourage Aboriginal youth to complete and obtain their high school diplomas” as part of the Provincial Aboriginal Post-Secondary Information program.

In Ryerson’s five-year academic plan, the university pledged to “cultivate and develop relationships with Aboriginal communities, both within and outside the university.” The plan was launched in 2014, but the university doesn’t have any partnerships with Indigenous communities in the GTA yet.

The only way you’re going to recruit Indigenous students is if you have the things that they want,” said Hayden King, director of the Centre of Indigenous Governance. Hiring more Indigenous faculty and offering Indigenous Studies, an interdisciplinary undergraduate program dedicated to the study of Indigenous peoples in Canada, could attract more students, he said.

In September 2014, Ryerson introduced the Aboriginal knowledges and experiences certificate program, which requires students to complete six courses that explore Indigenous experiences, culture and history. More recently in the spring of 2015, Ryerson launched the Aboriginal Foundations Program, a nine-week course that would allow young adults to sharpen essential writing skills and critical thinking without having to be enrolled.

As universities across the country respond to the TRC report, Alphonse said it is going to take more than millions of dollars to heal the wounds inflected by Canada’s colonial history.

“It is going to take love and compassion,” he said.

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