As number of Indigenous grads grows, so do calls for funding and programs that reflect the history of their communities.

It’s a cold, late November afternoon at Trent University – the kind of cold that makes a fall coat feel no longer adequate for a day that could easily tip into winter. But inside a tepee on the edge of campus, a fire warms a group of students seated in a circle around the flames. Thin plumes of smoke escape through the open roof, the smell guiding a visitor to the weekly meeting of the school’s native association.

Before the meeting begins, one woman leads a smudging ceremony to cleanse negative thoughts and feelings. Walking around the circle, she offers each person the smoke from a smouldering ember, and they bathe their hands and faces with the aromatic cedar.

With only a few weeks left until the end of term, much of the meeting is devoted to finding a free evening or two to relax before exams and to planning group dates for bowling or pizza.

This is a new generation of First Nations and Inuit students, some of whom grew up in Peterborough or nearby First Nations communities such as Curve Lake or Alderville, others from communities farther away, such as Six Nations. JukipaKotierk has come all the way from Nunavut because Trent runs in the family: Her mother and aunt both graduated from the school, partly drawn to Canada’s oldest Indigenous studies program.

Everyone knew they would find a kindred community of supportive peers who could make it easier to relearn a colonialist history they often find painful to hear again.

“We know people who went to residential school,” said Kendall Hill, a college-relations representative for the association. “My grandma told me how it was.”

Many say they sometimes feel they are moving toward the future faster than their institution. They want a curriculum that reflects the history of their communities, their lives and culture – and their engagement with Canada now.

“Look at this space,” said Tristen Schneider, the vice-president of the student association, sweeping her arm around the circle. “We are overcoming.”

Statistics Canada data released last month show she is right. The number of Indigenous students earning bachelor’s degrees continues to rise, with almost 11 per cent of Indigenous people holding a BA in 2016, compared with about 7 per cent in 2006. College credentials are going up at a similar rate.

The success, however, is not evenly distributed across Indigenous groups. Métispeople are more likely than First Nations or Inuit students to have earned a university or college credential. University graduates are more likely to be living in urban communities than on reserves and more Indigenous women graduate from postsecondary institutions than men, as is the case for all Canadians.

If you haven’t finished high school, it’s hard to get a university or college degree. And a third fewer native students have a high-school diploma than the non-native population, a testament to decades of lagging investment in elementary and secondary education on reserves.

Yet, even when Indigenous students reach the starting line for college and university, there has been no guarantee that the money will be there to pursue higher education. For decades, federal spending was capped on the Post-Secondary Student Support Program (PSSSP), the primary financial-aid program for Indigenous students headed to higher education. In the 2017 budget, Ottawa injected $90-million into the program, but it did not formally lift a 20-year-old 2-per-cent limit on growth in spending for the program. Over those two decades, the number of young Indigenous people has grown 30 per cent.

The cap has been responsible for thousands of students ending up on wait lists for assistance, according to widely cited statistics from the Assembly of First Nations.

“Our young population is increasing, and the funding has not increased to reflect that increased demographic,” said Jan Hill, the director of Indigenous initiatives at Queen’s University.

That may soon change for good. This year, the federal government is consulting with Indigenous groups on how to improve the participation of their students. Lifting the cap and committing to long-term funding may be one outcome. If that happens, it will mark the end of a tussle over control of higher education that Indigenous groups have alleged ignores their rights as nations to determine how their young people learn.

It’s a right that stems from treaties First Nations signed with the Crown, most significantly in the late 19 th and early 20th centuries, and has been further enshrined through United Nations declarations on the rights of Indigenous people, including the right to revitalize culture through education.

But while the federal government has recognized such rights by ceding control over the day-to-day running of financial-aid programs to native bands, the cap on the PSSSP strangled the bands’ ability to educate all their people.

“The PSSSP was a concern even when I was in university,” said Dawn Lavell-Harvard, the director of Trent’s First Peoples House of Learning and a former president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada. Dr. Lavell-Harvard has studied the barriers female Indigenous students have overcome to succeed in higher education, including inadequate funding for those with children. “It is like a bridge halfway across the river,” she said.

To cope with the shortfall caused by the funding cap, band councils imposed priority lists, ranking candidates according to their likelihood of graduating. High-school students were first in line. Mature students and women with children were sometimes shut out, even though, as Dr. Lavell-Harvard points out, Indigenous students in college or university may not follow a traditional education path.

“A high number of our graduates are not going to postsecondary in the traditional stream: Finish Grade 12 and head off to university. Many are mature students,” she said.

It will be some time before the new federal money trickles down. Some of the students at Trent who have PSSSP grants say they are still waiting for some of what they’ve promised. And they must all keep up their grades if they don’t want to lose those grants – another condition bands have had to impose.

Some bands ask for transcripts free of anything below a B; others are happy with grades above C.

“If you fail a class, you have to pay back the money. It can keep us motivated, so the accountability is good,” said Seth McDonald, who is studying Indigenous studies and anthropology.

A few of the students have also applied for financial aid through the Ontario Student Assistance Program. Along with heavily advertised changes to OSAP that make it easier for low-income students to receive help, the provincial government no longer counts PSSSP grants when calculating how much financial aid students can receive. It’s a simple change that is largely responsible for a third more Indigenous students applying to OSAP this year.

Financial counsellors on reserves say the new funds could make a difference between staying in a program and dropping out.

“Our students are well below the poverty line, and if they can get some extra help from OSAP it may help them be more successful,” said Leona Scanlon, the head counsellor for the Northern Nishnawbe Education Council, which serves students in the Sioux Lookout district.

MsScanlon found out about the changes to financial aid during spring consultations with the provincial government. Hundreds of financial counsellors from native communities came together to understand how to help their students apply and to talk about what their students need from postsecondary education

MsScanlon told the government it had a lot to learn.

Native students, for example, may have extraordinary costs that financial aid packages do not even consider, particularly travel.

“When you are in Toronto, you don’t realize that it costs $1,000 to fly into Fort Severn one way,” she said.

While an increase in money for travel hasn’t yet come about, those consultations led to other changes. Students in a social-work program at Oshki-Pimache-O-Win, which educates postsecondary students from 49 First Nations in Northern Ontario, can now receive provincial aid.

The Ontario government is also moving to granting the nine Indigenous postsecondary institutes in the province full independence.

Rather than the schools having to submit their programs to the province for approval, an Indigenous-run council will be in charge.

“Part of the reason why we exist is that the experience of higher education has not been positive,” said Rebecca Jamieson, the president of Six Nations Polytechnic, outside Brantford, Ont. “Up until recently, postsecondary education has been an assimilationist process with our people. There was never an emphasis on language or culture or even history taught,” she said.

In contrast, Six Nations emphasizes an interdependent worldview and teaches its students the importance of knowledge transmission to the next generation of young people.

“We are addressing a gap of knowledge that has been multigenerational,” Dr. Jamieson said.

Ms. Schneider at Trent says she hopes to integrate her life and knowledge as a young native woman with the skills and confidence she has developed at university. One day, she would like to run for band council chief in the community of Shawanaga First Nation, where she was born.

“I’ve been sitting here and I’ve been thinking,” she says, as the fire dies down to a glow. “Society is telling you that you have to have a degree and you have to go to college or university, but we know other things, too.”

Postsecondary Education Reporter
The Globe and Mail, January 2, 2018