Canada's Universities Strive to Be Inclusive ; Institutions Seek to Cater to Indigenous Students, Long a Neglected Group

By Smith, Elaine | International New York Times, November 18, 2013 | Go to article overview

Canada's Universities Strive to Be Inclusive ; Institutions Seek to Cater to Indigenous Students, Long a Neglected Group


Smith, Elaine, International New York Times


The country's institutions of higher education are adopting programs to increase access for disadvantaged indigenous peoples.

Max FineDay, the first indigenous president of the University of Saskatchewan Students' Union in the school's 106-year history, jokingly likens himself to another North American trailblazer -- President Obama, the first African-American president of the United States.

"It's really weird to be a role model," said the fourth-year politics student from the Sweetgrass First Nation in Saskatchewan, who was elected to represent the 17,000 undergraduates at the university, which is in Saskatoon. "My role models are people like Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Canada."

Although he was elected to his position by the entire student body, Mr. FineDay says that being an indigenous university student still has its challenges.

"Absolutely, there's still racism here, just like there is everywhere," he said. "A lot of students come to university never having met an Aboriginal student; they've just heard the racist comments their uncles make at family events.

"One of the things I'm going to focus on during my term is to educate people and break down stereotypes and facilitate dialogue," he said.

Mr. FineDay is the first member of his family to attend a university, taking advantage of an opportunity that his own father never had.

"My father went to residential school," he said, referring to the boarding school system that existed in Canada from the 1880s until the 1990s. During that period, indigenous children across Canada were taken from their homes, families and communities -- sometimes forcibly -- and sent away to schools run first by churches, then by the federal government. They were forbidden from identifying as Aboriginal -- the term that is still written into the Canadian legal system -- or speaking their own languages.

They were also prohibited from practicing their cultural rituals, and many reported having been subjected to psychological, physical or sexual abuse.

"We know that education is an indigenous value, but the history of education is not a happy one for Aboriginal people," Mr. FineDay said.

Canada was not alone in treating its Aboriginal youth that way. From the mid-19th century to the 1960s, Australia, for example, put its Aboriginal residents under the jurisdiction of protection boards and corralled its Aboriginal population on reserves, says the Bring Them Home report, produced by the Australian Human Rights Commission in 1997. Often children were housed in dormitories to distance them from the Aboriginal lifestyle and those of ethnically mixed parentage, with some European ancestry, were forcibly removed from their homes to be raised among the white population.

In Canada, the legacy of the residential schools has echoed down the generations, scarring students emotionally and poisoning the relationship between their families and the education system. Prime Minister Stephen Harper formally apologized to residential school survivors in 2008, and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission is working its way across the country hearing testimony from many of the survivors.

"Many times, education was used to strip Aboriginals of the Indian within," said Annie Battiste of the Aboriginal Students' Center at the University of Saskatchewan. "This is the first generation of students after the residential school era. We need to work together to create a better experience."

Ms. Battiste is echoing a call for action made by Mr. Atleo during a 2009 meeting with Canadian university presidents.

"We are looking at replacing the legacy of the residential schools with a vibrant new learning culture in every First Nation, grounded in our proud heritage, identity and language," Mr. Atleo, who is also chancellor of Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo, British Columbia, later declared, in a 2011 speech. …

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