Aboriginals are now being courted by universities across the country

BRIAN BERGMAN January 14 2002


Aboriginals are now being courted by universities across the country

BRIAN BERGMAN January 14 2002

Attending public school in the northern community of Smithers, B.C., Warner and Patricia Naziel endured almost daily lessons in racism. The brother and sister, members of the Wet'suwet’en First Nation, contended with taunts and fistfights as they confronted the local white kids on the long, lonely road to their grandmother’s house after school. They persevered, each earning a Grade 12 diploma, but the harassment helped sour their views about continuing on. Now, after 15 years in the workforce—Warner as a native programs administrator and Patricia as a youth counsellor—they are together again, this time as freshmen at the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George. And while those early experiences still sting, these are not people who spend a lot of time nursing old wounds. “I’m a strong believer in destiny,” says Warner, 33, “and I was totally ready to take this leap.” Patricia, a 34-year-old single mother of two, who is now pursuing a public administration degree, agrees. “It’s taken a long time to get here,” she says, “but this is something I always dreamed of doing.”

The Naziel siblings are part of UNBC’s Northern Advancement Program, one of several initiatives offered by universities across Canada that help aboriginal students make the transition to higher education—both mature ones like Patricia and Warner, as well as those coming directly from high school. The Naziels both felt dead-ended in their jobs and eager for a new challenge. But they were also intimidated by the prospect of returning to school. In that regard, UNBC’s program, which takes in about 23 first-year aboriginal students annually, proved a godsend. A key element is a two-week orientation, held every August. This year’s session included a weekend wilderness retreat, culminating in a five-hour “talking circle” that saw students share their personal histories around a campfire. “I found that extremely powerful,” says Warner Naziel, a father of two who is majoring in anthropology. “It helped us identify classmates who are having problems in their lives, so we can keep an eye on them and make sure they don’t fall through the cracks.”

Founded in 1990, UNBC had a unique genesis: 16,000 individuals from across northern British Columbia, many of them aboriginals, paid $5 each to petition the province for a new university. From the outset, serving First Nations students was a key priority. And while only about 10 percent of the 3,500 enrolled are aboriginal, their presence is keenly felt throughout the campus. Carved out of the bush on a hill overlooking Prince George, UNBC is replete with cedar, birch and fir beams supporting high-vaulted glass ceilings that suffuse the hallways with natural light. Indian prints and Inuit soapstone carvings abound; other aboriginal handiwork can be seen in everything from the finely carved doors of the University Senate to the Chancellor’s ceremonial chair, which features representations of the thunderbird, frog, beaver, grouse, fireweed, owl, eagle and killer whale.

Symbolism aside, aboriginal students at UNBC also benefit greatly from the First Nations Centre which, in addition to housing counsellors and academic advisors, provides a study area, computer lab and a spacious sitting lounge where students congregate. During a recent Macleans roundtable with a half-dozen students at the centre, the talk kept returning to how important it was to have each other’s support and company. “This is a place to chat and laugh a bit when we’re all stressed out,” said Sharona Supernault, a 21-year-old Cree Métis from Dawson Creek, B.C., who is in the final year of her undergraduate degree and hopes to go on to medical school. “For me, it’s made all the difference.” Marci Thomas, a 22-year-old from the Nak’azdli First Nations near Fort St. James, B.C., agreed. “I didn’t start coming into the centre until my second year, but it really helped,” says Thomas, who is finishing up a degree in general business and First Nations studies. “My marks went right up.”

UNBC president Charles Jago has been impressed both by the determination of individual students and by the pride of their home communities. In fact, one of the reasons the university relocated its annual graduation ceremonies from the campus to the Prince George Multiplex was to accommodate friends and relatives. “A number of these students are not just the first university graduates in their families, but the first from their clan or village,” says Jago. “Sometimes practically the whole bloody village comes to celebrate.”

What’s happening at UNBC is occurring, to one extent or another, at campuses across Canada. Administrators are scrambling to recruit and retain native students through transition courses, tutoring and cultural accommodations. Part of this, to be sure, is driven by an overdue recognition that native students have too often been neglected. But, in some cases, there are also more pragmatic considerations. At a time when Canada is experiencing an explosion in the number of aboriginal youth, it makes sense for many universities, especially in the western provinces, to court, and cultivate, these potential clients.

Consider first the demographics. More than half of the country’s 800,000 plus aboriginal population is under the age of 25. The number of aboriginal people of working age will double in the next 10 years, growing at a rate three to five times faster than that of other Canadians. Now, consider the record. According to the latest available Canada Census figures, only three per cent of status Indians 15 years and older hold university degrees, compared to 14 per cent of other Canadians. Of those who made it to university, only 36 per cent of status Indians completed a degree; the comparable figure for nonnatives is 64 per cent.

The gnawing gap between what has been done and what needs to happen is fanning a feeding frenzy among those recruiting native students. The Regina-based Saskatchewan Indian Federated College, marking its 25th anniversary this year, is the only First Nations controlled university in Canada. During its early years, SIFC was an obvious choice for native post-secondary students, both from Saskatchewan and elsewhere. But it now faces stiff competition. Richard Missens, director of SIFC’s School of Business & Public Administration, recalls going to a recent career fair for aboriginal students in Regina. “Just about every university in Western Canada was there,” says Missens. “They all had booths, programs and were offering support for students to come to their institution.” The array of choice has not been lost on students. “Some are now looking for brand-name universities,” notes Missens. “Some are looking not just for a business school, but the best business school.” Those demanding consumers are, of course, among the lucky few. For most aboriginal people, getting into university—any university—remains a titanic struggle. The most obvious hurdle is academic. According to census figures, 37 per cent of status Indians drop out before completing high school, compared to 21 per cent of nonaboriginals. But native educators say that only tells part of the story. The quality of education that aboriginal youths receive— especially those from remote communities—is frequently substandard. Even those who finish high school often lack the necessary English, math and science skills to proceed to university.

Stories are also legion of native students, whether at isolated reserves or large urban public schools, having to deal with racism and persistent efforts to downplay their potential. Many are steered automatically to the trades. Cornelia Wieman, 37, one of only a handful of aboriginal psychiatrists in Canada, recalls her own high school days in Thunder Bay, Ont. “I distinctly remember five individuals being singled out as potential physicians,” she says. “I certainly wasn’t one of them. I was the kid in the back with the baseball cap on that no one took much notice of.” Wieman, who now practices psychiatry at the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford, Ont., as well as heading a native recruitment and liaison program for the health sciences faculty at McMaster University in Hamilton, says the net effect of such experiences is predictable. “So many students think they are not smart enough or able to work hard enough to succeed at university,” observes Wieman. “There’s a real self-esteem problem.”

Self-doubt is a common refrain, even among those who are well along in their university studies. Glenn Tssessaze, 23, now in his final year of a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Manitoba, grew up in the Dene community of Lac Brochet near the northern Manitoba/Northwest Territories border. Tssessaze, whose first language is Dene, continues to feel intimidated by his classmates’ easy command of English. “I feel like mine isn’t good enough,” says Tssessaze, whose English is just fine. “And then I think I’m not smart enough to be here.” 

Many students also carry extraordinary baggage from their personal lives. Shannon Avison, head of the Indian Communication Arts program at SIFC, ticks off some of the more extreme social ills that come to her attention. “I’ve known of students who were pimped out at age 12,” she says. “Another watched an aunt commit suicide when he was four, was in youth detention at age 12 and later became a drug dealer and addict.” Judy Golar-Nuualiitia, who recruits for UNBC, says about half of aboriginal students never make it past their first year, usually because of personal problems, often involving alcohol and drugs. “Living on ‘the rez’ is not always pretty,” says Golar-Nuualiitia, who grew up on a reserve in northern British Columbia. “A lot of students are trying to break free of that lifestyle.”

Other common challenges include the culture shock as students move from remote rural settlements to large urban campuses, as well as some unusual family obligations. A high percentage of aboriginals come to university as mature students, many with children of their own. A majority are women, and many are single parents. But beyond juggling children and school, native students are often called back home for extended periods to deal with, among other things, sickness or death in their families and close-knit communities. This pattern—which sees natives weave in and out of the system—is so deeply ingrained that veteran administrators have learned to roll with the punches. “It’s certainly harder to retain them in a normal sense,” says Robert Leavitt, director of the Micmac-Maliseet Institute, which provides support services to native students at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. “But often when a student says, ‘I’m leaving,’ I think to myself, ‘You’ll be back.’”

Academic shortfalls. Social pathologies. Culture shock. It’s a lot to cope with— for students and universities alike. Administrations across the country have introduced first-year programs for aboriginal students that range from a few introductory courses in such skills as essay writing and library research to those which take a more holistic approach to ensuring native students hit the ground running.

One of the oldest and most advanced examples of the latter is the University of Manitoba’s Access Program—UMAP for short—which marked its 25th anniversary last year. UMAP is open to all students who present an identified academic or financial need that might otherwise prevent them from attending university. In practice, about 85 per cent of its participants are aboriginal, most of the others being recent immigrants. Students typically take two university courses as part of the regular student body, as well as courses specifically designed for UMAP students. The latter feature classes, smaller than the norm, which focus on identified areas of weakness such as English, writing and research skills. UMAP students have ready access to academic advisers, tutors and personal counsellors. And as with UNBC’s northern advancement program, UMAP’s two-week orientation exercise represents an opportunity for participants to bond with each other. “Students who are well-connected are usually the ones who succeed,” says Randy Herrmann, director of the university’s so-called ACCESS programs. “Those who are loners tend not to do as well.”

The University of Manitoba offers other programs to support aboriginal students in specific fields, including pre-medicine, nursing and engineering. As well, UMAP graduates can take advantage of the program’s services as they continue their studies. One who does so is Tssessaze. “When I feel bad, my family is far away,” he explains. “So I go see a counsellor. They support me. They encourage me. They make me feel better.”

The neediest UMAP students are eligible for bursaries that help cover tuition and living costs. Such bursaries, which other universities offer to varying degrees, have become even more crucial following the funding changes of 1989. Until then, Ottawa bankrolled any status Indian who wanted to go to university. Now, a lump sum of money is directed to Indian bands, and they choose which individuals to fund. The net effect: many status Indian university students are not receiving federal financial aid.

If there is one part of the country where the education of aboriginal youth has a special sense of urgency, it is Saskatchewan. Natives currently make up 12 per cent of the population. Given current birth rates, it is estimated that, by the middle of this century, one of every three Saskatchewan residents will be aboriginal. “This is an enormous human resource,” says Michael Atkinson, vice-president academic and provost at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. “If we are not welcoming and helping aboriginal students to succeed, what is the future of the province?”

The U of S currently has nearly 2,300 native students, more than any other campus in Canada, and boasts several flagship programs. In the past 25 years, its education college has graduated over 1,000 aboriginal teachers. Of the 825 natives who graduated from various law faculties across the country over the past three decades, fully 61 per cent have done at least part of their legal training at the U of S. But given the demographic projections, the university has been ramping up on several other fronts. Among the new initiatives is something called Super Saturday, involving native kids from Grades 4 through 12 in informal sessions with faculty members. “There’s a growing understanding that you can’t wait until high school to recruit students,” explains Atkinson. “If you do, you’re going to be very frustrated.”

Despite the aggressive recruiting efforts of the U of S, there are still some students who prefer the more intimate Saskatchewan Indian Federated College, which runs in affiliation with the University of Regina. Among them is Jo-anne Goodpipe, 31, a single parent who will complete a four-year business administration degree next spring. When she returned to school after 10 years in the workforce, Goodpipe intended to get a two-year business certificate. But with encouragement, she now plans to take a master’s degree in human resource management at the University of Regina and, ultimately, to return to SIFC as a professor. “I would never have believed when I started out that I’d be where I am now,” she says. “I want to give back to other students who come here.” 

Success stories like Goodpipe’s are what keep university educators pumped, despite the disappointing reality that up to 50 per cent of native students never make it past their first year and only a third complete a degree. However, all agree much more needs to be done, especially in professions such as medicine, engineering and the sciences. Psychiatrist Wieman believes part of the solution is embracing what many in academia consider a dirty word: quotas. “I don’t care what the word is,” says Wieman. “We have a critical shortage of aboriginal health-care providers and the only thing that will rectify that in the short term is a quota system.”

Wieman draws on her experience at McMaster to make her point. Unlike other medical schools at such other universities as Alberta and Saskatchewan, McMaster does not set aside a specific number of places for qualified aboriginal students. Still, part of Wieman’s job as a recruiter for the university is to increase the number of native applicants to the medical school. This year, she says, 24 individuals applied, double the number in the past. But not one of them even got an interview. “I think that’s just shameful,” says Wieman. “It’s an embarrassment to the school.”

Despite her frustration, Wieman is constantly urging native youth to keep the faith. She likes to remind them of her own background as an underestimated and less-than-stellar high school student who beat the odds. “Look, I’m not a particularly brilliant person,” she says. “But I’m very, very stubborn.” When faced with overwhelming obstacles, sheer doggedness can be a powerful virtue.*