Success, one student at a time

How universities are embracing the Aboriginal baby boom

<p>THUNDER BAY, ON &#8211; October 9th &#8211; 2011 &#8211; Aboriginal students, Bruna Larizza, Shelley Fugere and Jamesina Sugarhead enjoy a barbecue on a sunny fall afternoon on Lakehead’s Thunder Bay campus.</p>

Aboriginal students at Lakehead in 2011 (Andrew Tolson)

Students at Lakehead University. By Andrew Tolson.

From the Maclean’s University Rankings—on newsstands now. Story by Ken MacQueen.

It’s one of those small things that’s actually very big. The University of Manitoba has a policy on smudging: the Aboriginal tradition of burning sage, sweetgrass or cedar as a way of setting a positive tone and purifying the mind. Say a love affair goes sideways, or a professor is unimpressed with your political science presentation, or it’s autumn on the reserve and here you are in Winnipeg, lonely and blue; well, retreating to a quiet place to wash yourself in the smoke of a smudge is a way to turn the page, to gain strength and clarity. The policy on smudging and pipe ceremonies is the product of deep bureaucratic thought, legal consultation and many meetings, because, of course, there are no-smoking laws. So, it’s complicated.

Enter Kali Storm, director of the U of M’s Aboriginal Student Centre, a woman of Metis and Ojibway blood. She has a ready laugh, but also the sort of iron will forged in hardship that her surname implies. She knew the provincial law made exceptions for tobacco ceremonies, and, besides, she says, “this is our spiritual human right to smudge.” So, on the day of the penultimate meeting with university brass, she girded for battle: she had a smudge, donned a red power suit, brought with her a respected elder. Except the university health and safety guy opened the meeting by handing her a pouch of tobacco as a sign of respect and accommodation. “How can we do it,” he asked her, “so that it’s respectful to everyone?” The result is a cumbersome policy requiring public notification, signage, smoke alarms and pre-approved smudge sites. But it works.

Here, and at universities across the country, initiatives big and small are feeding a rising rate of Aboriginal student enrolment—the first sign that the disgraceful state of indigenous education in Canada may finally have reached a tipping point. It comes not a moment too soon. The population of First Nations, Metis and Inuit is growing at six times the rate of the general population—a fact not reflected in the graduation rates of indigenous people in high school, let alone post-secondary institutions. The high school dropout rate is 60 per cent for Inuit and on-reserve First Nations people, and 43 per cent for urban Aboriginals, compared to a graduation rate of about 90 per cent for non-Aboriginal Canadians. While almost one-quarter of non-Aboriginal Canadians have university degrees, the percentages fall to nine for Metis, seven for First Nations and four for Inuit. Poverty, dysfunction, suicide—Aboriginal youth suicide is an appalling six times the rate of non-Aboriginal youth— and imprisonment are too often the norm for those marooned on the margins without the tools to prosper in an increasingly urbanized society.

More and more, though, Aboriginal leaders, savvy educators and, belatedly, governments, are seeing the potential in this aboriginal baby boom. Among the new generation of leaders is Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), himself the son of teachers who earned doctorates. The AFN and the federal government have created a panel of experts to improve education for elementary and secondary students. “If we were to close the education and the labour market gap, in one generation it could result in $400 billion in additional output to the Canadian economy and $115 billion in saved government expenditures,” Atleo told Maclean’s.

A turnaround of that magnitude in that time seems wildly optimistic. But maybe not: educators and students are charting success incrementally with each new relationship built, and every barrier overcome. This year, for example, there are more than 1,900 self-declared Aboriginal students at the University of Manitoba, almost seven per cent of the student population and among the largest indigenous cohorts in the country. Downtown, at the smaller University of Winnipeg, Aboriginal student applications jumped an astonishing 24 per cent this year, bringing enrolment to about 12 per cent of the student population, the largest proportion in the country.

In a poignant example of progress, the University of Winnipeg staged its fall convocation on Oct. 16, and granted three honorary degrees—all to accomplished Aboriginal leaders. Among them was Justice Murray Sinclair, Manitoba’s first Aboriginal judge, and the chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada into the nation’s residential school tragedy. Listening intently that Sunday afternoon was Jennifer Parisian, an 18-year-old traditional singer of Nakota and Ojibwa blood, enrolled in a first-year transition program at the university. Sinclair’s powerful speech about the value of education to move beyond the legacy of residential schools hit close to home. Parisian’s father was a residential school student. Yet, at the Winnipeg public high school she attended, the topic was raised just once, during a movie shown in Grade 10 English. When she stood in class to speak about damage the schools inflicted on generations of students, she says fellow students berated and ridiculed her. “They were openly calling me a savage in class and nothing was done.”

Now, however, with her family’s encouragement, Parisian is a university student. And far from being ridiculed, after the honorary degrees were conferred, she stood that Sunday before 2,000 guests and graduates and, swallowing her fears, she sang a moving rendition of a traditional honour song. She was intimidated, “but when the time came to perform, I felt more honoured and privileged than anything else.”

For U of W president Lloyd Axworthy, the Aboriginal-themed convocation sent a powerful message about a mainstream university embracing the new reality. He says the university’s commitment to indigenous enrolment is a pragmatic investment in the future. He estimates Manitoba’s Aboriginal population will reach 20 to 25 per cent within a decade. “We have this big advantage, we have the youngest population in North America,” he says. “The problem is that young population is not getting by that dropout hurdle. If we can overcome that, then this becomes a huge economic multiplier for us.”

At the University of Victoria, president David Turpin’s commitment led to the construction of the First Peoples House—an architectural gem and campus gathering place designed to meet the physical and spiritual needs of Aboriginal students. UVic was the site of LE,NONET, a groundbreaking $4.5-million federally funded Aboriginal support program that yielded impressive results: the dropout rate plunged and Aboriginal graduation rates rose 20 per cent.

Madelynn Sade, a 22-year-old Michel Cree from Rocky Mountain House, Alta., is among those who benefited from UVic’s initiatives. She was introduced to the campus in 2006 during its annual mini university camp for Aboriginal high school students. When the time came to leave home, UVic seemed the comforting choice. She applied for a series of bursaries available to Aboriginal students, and enjoyed the fellowship of First Peoples House, with its elders-in-residence program, its tutoring support, social programs and feast days. “I was having a really tough time,” she says of her first year away from home, “and this was the first place I came. I got all the support I needed.”

Similar support by administration at Nipissing University in North Bay created the Office of Aboriginal Affairs, with Laurie McLaren as executive director. McLaren, the daughter of a residential school survivor, is as comfortable in the bush as the boardroom. Nipissing has reached five-per-cent Aboriginal enrolment. The key to future growth, she says, is reaching into the public schools where great expectations live or die. “We’re preparing the pipeline,” she says, “and they will come.”

There are no quick fixes; the barriers are many. They are financial, of course, but also attitudinal: fewer role models, limited expectations of academic success, resentment and suspicion over the legacy of residential schools as tools of assimilation, the past failure of many post-secondary institutions to engage with indigenous communities. There are solutions to all of these: some are universal, some are as unique as the relationship with individual students. Among them:

Preparing the pipeline

How do you dream of university when graduating high school seems insurmountable? There have been improvements in high school graduation rates, but the gap with the rest of the population remains profound.

Reversing that means getting them while they’re young. In North Bay, Ont., Bryan Bellefeuille, a third-year math major at Nipissing University, is a fixture at local high schools. He’s a leadership intern in the Aboriginal Student Links program. He meets regularly with groups of indigenous high school students to discuss career paths and future goals. “They have to see post-secondary education as an option, and I don’t think many do right now,” says McLaren, the Aboriginal initiatives director. “If it’s not a familiar part of your world, it’s something that’s unreachable. If it becomes part of the norm, different story.”

In 20-year-old Bellefeuille, they have a remarkable role model. He was born and raised on the Nipissing First Nation. He moved into his own home at 14, during a period of family strife, supporting himself by working at a reserve smoke shop. On the bus ride to school he’d run through multiplication and division tables in his head because he likes the certainty of mathematics. His teachers involved him in math competitions at the university. When the time came, he enrolled at Nipissing, refusing to be held back by his epilepsy or the low expectations of others.

Today, he helps those in the links program confront their own barriers. He found, to his surprise, the program set his own career path: he’ll become a teacher of mathematics.

In the Manitoba capital on a beautiful fall day, 20 students from Grades 9 to 12 are ensconced on the fourth floor of castle-like Wesley Hall at the University of Winnipeg. The Model School handles some 30 at-risk students each year, a kind of Last Chance High for those who’ve flamed out of the public school system. Many, though not all, are Aboriginal. School director Gerri Zacharias breezes through an upbeat introduction to the students, many looking up from the Apple laptops they’ll keep if they graduate.

Then she shuts her office door and explains some of the realities. Among them is a student who was going without meals until Zacharias convinced a donor to give $500. She rations this in a weekly series of $25 Safeway gift cards so the kid’s family won’t take the money.

Here, the rules are clear, the consequences obvious—if you can’t make it here, there’s nowhere else—and expectations high. “This is a prep school for university,” says Zacharias. The numbers are small, just 14 graduates so far in the young program, but three quarters have gone on to higher education.

Don’t apologize

There are entrenched attitudes at universities, and in Aboriginal communities, too. With the smudging issue behind her, Storm faced the challenge of finding an appropriate setting at the University of Manitoba for a sweat lodge. Again, it took time and patience, and there was the concern of city fire department officials to assuage. “Do you think,” she asked them, “we want to be the first Indians in history to burn down our own sweat lodge?”

But there are hardened attitudes in Aboriginal communities, too. Storm herself finds it difficult to return to the Couchiching First Nation near Fort Frances, Ont., where she was raised. Her years at university, including a master’s in education, carry no currency. “It’s like, ‘Oh, you’re white now,’ ” she says. She laughs off the notion that education makes her a credit to her race. “You get that from white people,” she says, “but the community itself is almost resentful of it.”

Allan Cochrane, a fourth-year University of Winnipeg student, finds support but also resentment in his home on the Peguis First Nation, 190 km north of Winnipeg. “I’m treated a little different out there now because I’m seeking higher education to move up in the world,” he says. Even some family members suggest he’s trying to be better than them, “even though that’s not my intent,” he says. “I don’t apologize.”

It’s an issue that must be resolved, Storm says, applying Western knowledge in appropriate ways. “What makes you, other than the colour of your skin or your band affiliation, any different—as a social worker, or a teacher or a lawyer—than the people who have colonized us for centuries?”

Crossing the tracks

Jennifer Rattray’s senior role as associate vice-president indigenous, government and community affairs at the University of Winnipeg doesn’t officially extend to finding a distraught student a bedbug-free apartment. But when the exhausted student is so under siege she’s sleeping in the bath tub, that’s what you do. The former television journalist and member of the Peepeekisis First Nation credits the leap in U of W’s indigenous enrolment to tending relationships.

At the university’s satellite storefront campus on Selkirk Ave., in the heart of Winnipeg’s gritty North End, trust is the essential glue. For many students at this predominantly Aboriginal inner city site, the prospect of crossing the economic divide of the city’s rail yards is too daunting a prospect. “So, we thought we’ll bring the university here,” says Jim Silver, professor and director of Urban and Inner-City Studies.

One student attended the entire winter term before admitting to program coordinator Claudette Michell that she was essentially homeless. Michelle—a Cree who once walked Selkirk Avenue as a 13-year-old runaway—moved heaven and earth to get the woman housing. “What’s the biggest barrier in the way of North End residents graduating?” Silver asks rhetorically. “Life. Their lives of poverty. We have to attend to that.”

The mythical free Ride

It’s a prevailing myth that Aboriginal students have a taxpayer funded ride through the education system. In fact, elementary and high schools on reserves are funded by the federal government at rates 20 to 50 per cent below public school norms. As a result, some reserve students study in appalling conditions, says Atleo, the AFN chief. “The average kid on a reserve does not have access to computers, funds for recreation, funds for teacher training,” he says. “Some regions of the country have a 28 per cent K to 12 graduation rate.” While there is a federal post-secondary support program for Status Indians and Inuit (Aboriginals without status aren’t eligible), the fund is shrinking in real dollar terms at a time when half the Aboriginal population is under 25. Thousands of qualified applicants are turned down every year for lack of money. A boost in federal education funding would have the single biggest impact in turning the corner, says Axworthy.

Tight money prompted his university to launch the Opportunity Fund for students in Grades 4 to 12. A tuition credit is paid into a trust account for each year of successful school completion, with top-ups for good marks and extra-curricular activities. One of the first students in the four-year-old program just reached university with a $1,700 credit, says Axworthy. For poor families questioning the worth of a high school diploma, “It’s a way of going home and saying, ‘Look, my brains are raising me some money.’ ”

The obstacles are enormous. The victories are worth celebrating. Jasmine Parisian left the convocation ceremony realizing she was following in the footsteps of giants, more committed than ever, she says, to completing university. The remarkable new Aboriginal student centres at the universities of Manitoba and Victoria are also part of that awakening, marking the rebirth of education as a cultural touchstone rather than a tool of assimilation. Both centres have high ceilings and good ventilation—smudging is encouraged.