Steven Swan spent nine years jumping from job to job, where “nothing was stable, nothing was secure.” Then he decided enough was enough.
Swan, a member of the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation in northeast Saskatchewan, wanted security and something to be proud of, so he decided to go to university to become a teacher, like his mom.
“She’s been teaching for 30-odd years and I just see the profession as something pretty stable, pretty noble, pretty respectable, pretty honourable,” said Swan, 34, who recently finished his bachelor of education at Regina’s First Nations University of Canada.
Swan is convinced he’s not alone: more and more members of Canada’s First Nations are opting to embrace post-secondary education as a means to improve their lives, he said.
“Not just young people that are fresh out of high school, going to school and finishing in four years, but older people going back to school because they see the importance of getting an education and they see that in order to get what they need in life…that they need to do something about it and they go to school,” he said.
“A lot of them are successful, a lot of them graduate and you see their life changes big time after that.”
More than four in 10 First Nations people aged 25 to 64 had some sort of post-secondary qualification, Statistics Canada reported Wednesday in the latest tranche of data from the 2011 National Household Survey, the replacement for the cancelled long-form census.
Of those roughly 174,360 people, 13.2 per cent had a trades certificate; 19.4 per cent a college diploma; 3.6 per cent a university certificate or diploma below the bachelor level; and 8.7 per cent a university degree.
The number of aboriginal people in post-secondary education in Saskatchewan alone reached about 15,000 in 2011-12, up from about 13,000 five years earlier, figures provided by the provincial government indicate.
The University of Saskatchewan’s College of Medicine is a good example of the shift taking place across the country.
Since 1970, just 45 First Nations and Metis people have graduated from the medical program. Now, there are 40 aboriginal people enrolled in the four-year undergraduate program.
A new program that reserves 10 per cent of first-year spaces for persons of aboriginal descent has made a big difference, said professor Barry Ziola, who is also the school’s director of admissions.
“We have the highest proportion of self-declared aboriginal students of any of the medical schools in Canada,” Ziola said.
In the College of Arts and Science in the mid to late-1980s, there were 75 self-declared aboriginals out of 5,500 students, Ziola recalled. Now there are 800 aboriginal students out of about 7,000 in arts and science.
Aboriginal people are looking for opportunities, said College of Medicine aboriginal co-ordinator Valerie Arnault-Pelletier.
“There’s the saying, ‘Education is the new buffalo,’ because historically the buffalo gave us food, clothing and shelter, and now as First Nations and Metis people, we need to look to education to give us those things,” Arnault-Pelletier said.
The dark legacy of the residential school era, which deprived First Nations children of their families and culture and exposed many to physical and sexual abuse, naturally made education seem like it wasn’t an option, said University of Saskatchewan associate professor Alex Wilson.
Now, the goal of a post-secondary education is closer than ever, said Wilson, of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation in northern Manitoba. Wilson was also an organizer of the Idle No More movement, a broad social-media campaign that’s mobilizing aboriginal communities across Canada.
“It takes a while for those numbers to shift over time and I think that’s what we’re seeing now is the result of a lot of social justice movements, a lot of advocacy in terms of First Nations people and education and treaty rights. I think that’s what’s happening,” said Wilson.
“I think Idle No More is kind of a culmination of all those years of hard work that people have been doing and this is kind of a nexus of it.”
There are still many basic barriers to overcome, Wilson warned: some communities, for instance, don’t even have road access to allow people to get to school. But there’s a sense of change in the air, she added.
“I think there is an excitement right now and it connects to social movements, but it also connects with a sense of hopefulness and possibility and seeing that it’s not just about getting numbers or filling quotas. It is really about changing social consciousness,” Wilson said.
“And when people can see that that’s happened or that’s even possible, I think that sparks an energy in people, especially students when they know how much power they have.”
Wilson warned against “lumping” all aboriginal people together, however, and also noted that First Nations communities have a historically low level of participation in exercises like the census and the National Household Survey.
Data from the survey should be taken with a grain of salt, she said.
University of British Columbia professor Jo-ann Archibald, associate dean in the school’s Indigenous Education program, said she believes post-secondary institutions have become more welcoming for aboriginal students.
“A lot of the young students will see that aboriginal people are in various professions and in different levels of education, so they see aboriginal people in these roles and it makes them think, ‘Well, gee, I can do that,’” she said.
“And I think some of the aboriginal organizations and professional organizations have put aboriginal education…as a priority.”