Barriers to education remain for Indigenous students

Post-secondary institutions must take extra steps to make education more accessible for Canada’s Indigenous peoples

The Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre at Queen’s serves to support Indigenous students and inform the wider Queen’s community.
The Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre at Queen’s serves to support Indigenous students and inform the wider Queen’s community.
Photo: 
Statistics about Indigenous studies programs and support systems in place in Canadian universities, taken from a 2012 survey from the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada.
Statistics about Indigenous studies programs and support systems in place in Canadian universities, taken from a 2012 survey from the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada.
Credit: 
Graphic by Michaella Fortune

Ashley Maracle, ArtSci '09

Queen’s University is an influential and prestigious leader among Canada’s postsecondary institutions. Further, Queen’s has taken pride in being a multicultural and inclusive campus.

As a Mohawk woman, I predominately chose Queen’s because I already had connections with the Indigenous community here in Kingston. When I started first-year in 2005, however, I realized very quickly that the campus wasn’t always a safe space for Indigenous students – First Nations, Métis and Inuit.

While my experiences as a Queen’s student were rewarding and mostly positive, they were often extremely difficult.

This was due to the lack of institutional support for Indigenous student services – namely the Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre (FDASC) – and the lack of awareness on campus about Indigenous people in Canada in general.

The environment at Queen’s has improved for Indigenous students in the last five years. The number of self-identified Indigenous applicants to Queen’s has increased by roughly 10 per cent every year since 2011.

But there remains much to be worked on at schools across the country. Indigenous people continue to have a challenging relationship with education throughout Canada, in both urban and reserve settings.

Creating a campus environment that has students well aware of Indigenous issues and history will help make a more inclusive space. It’s important that educators encourage non-Indigenous students to learn more about the relationship and responsibilities Canada has with Indigenous peoples across the country.

Outreach from post-secondary institutions must begin at a young age, as Indigenous youth often don’t complete high school.

According to the former Auditor General of Canada, Sheila Fraser, the educational gap between Indigenous students and non-Indigenous students is growing – not diminishing as previously thought. In 2011 it was reported that forty-one per cent of Indigenous students graduate from high school, compared to 77 per cent of the Canadian population. In 2012 the number had dropped to 37 percent of Indigenous students graduating.

One of the largest reasons for this is the legacy of residential schools, which has made many Aboriginal people wary of educational institutions.

Many current students don’t realize there were still residential schools open during their lifetime. Indigenous learners were forced to attend schools in which they weren’t allowed to celebrate their Indigeneity until 1996, when the last residential school was closed.

In mainstream schools across Turtle Island – North America – much of the curriculum has denied Indigenous perspectives and worldviews.

As a student here, my classmates often told me that I wasn’t an authentic Indigenous woman, because I didn’t look like their understanding of an Indigenous woman, and I didn’t grow up on my territory. Some commented about my perceived financial situation, tabbing me as a “free loading Indian”.

When I’ve spoken about my experiences in the past, many people are surprised that I’m now the Aboriginal Community Outreach Liaison for the FDASC. I’m often asked why I would recruit Indigenous students to Queen’s, considering the challenges I encountered.

My response has always been the same: for Queen’s to truly be multicultural and inclusive, Indigenous students needto be here. My experiences as a Queen’s student highlight the need to educate others about the true history of Canadian educational policies.

It’s important to ensure our campus is a safe space for Indigenous students, and that we encourage non-Indigenous students to learn more about the relationship and responsibilities Canada has with Indigenous peoples across the country.

Further, Indigenous students need to be here to influence and impact decisions that affect our people, today and in the future.

As a student, I was very aware of the lack of Indigenous faces across campus. I wasn’t looking for the stereotypical Pocahontas lookalike, but I knew the population of self-identified Indigenous students was very small.

This, I’m proud to say, has changed significantly in the five years since I completed my undergraduate degree.

This week alone at Four Directions, we’ve seen a number of new faces and many returning students pass through the doors of our centre on Barrie St. The FDASC is lively in a way now that it never was when I was a student.

At Four Directions, we now have a full staff of six who are devoted to Indigenous students’ success. We work hard to ensure that non-Indigenous students, staff and community members are welcome and encouraged to learn more about Indigenous peoples and cultures.

Indigenous people living in both urban and reserve settings have been calling for accessible and equitable educational opportunities for Indigenous youth for generations. In a university setting, this means having community representatives and students involved in our Aboriginal Council, the governing body for Indigenous initiatives here at Queen’s.

Initiatives undertaken recently include academic support for Indigenous learners, various supports available through Aboriginal Access to Engineering – which aims to encourage Indigenous youth to pursue engineering through outreach programs – and the creation of the Indigenous Studies minor in the Faculty of Arts and Science last September.

While I’d never argue that the struggle to carve out safe spaces on campus is over, the fact that Indigenous students increasingly view Queen’s as a viable option is a testament to the university’s conscious work to improve the student experience for marginalized and racialized students.

The changes I’ve already seen at Queen’s from when I was a student here, until now, show that post-secondary institutions can work to make education more accessible for Indigenous peoples. The legacy of institutions in this country can be changed from a force of abuse in the lives of Indigenous people to a tool to overcome current circumstances that derive from colonial rule.

Ashley is the Aboriginal Community Outreach Liaison for the Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre.

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