When Laurel Franks was deciding where to go for post-secondary education, size mattered. She grew up in Wahta Mohawk First Nation, a few hours north of Toronto, and found the idea of attending a school with more students than her home community of 800 overwhelming. So she searched for institutions that would diminish the culture shock, eventually choosing to study psychology at the relatively small University of Guelph. Now, as she completes a master’s in social work at OISE, she wants to make that transition easier for other Indigenous students.
Franks is part of a team at the University of Toronto that has runs Strategic Outcomes for Academic pRogress (SOAR) program. In its eighth year, SOAR brings together Indigenous students from across the province to spend a week on campus, showing them that they belong in post-secondary education by highlighting the culturally focused resources available to them.
This year, 18 high school students spent last March Break exploring the city, attending events, speaking with elders and discovering services available to them should they attend an institution like U of T.
“We try to encourage them to open their mind and be open to the fact that university can be a safe space,” Franks says.
The stats on Indigenous post-secondary education are staggering: only 9.8 per cent of Indigenous peoples in Canada have university degrees, compared to 26.5 of non-Indigenous Canadians.
Franks says having a mother who completed post-secondary and became a nurse was a huge push for her, giving her a realistic role model to emulate. “A lot of my peers... didn’t have the means, but also didn’t have anyone to inspire them to try,” she says.
The stigma that school carries in Indigenous communities is significant as well. During the reign of the residential school system, some 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were forcibly removed from their families and placed in educational institutions that attempted to quash their cultures, languages and traditions while subjecting them to psychological, physical and sexual abuses. Since the last of these schools operated until 1996, the wounds are still fresh for many.
“There’s a huge level of mistrust that exists between Indigenous communities and institutions of education like universities and colleges,” says Dr. Suzanne Stewart. A member of the Yellowknife Dene First Nation and a professor at OISE, she knows firsthand the effects of residential schools: her siblings, parents and grandparents all attended them. Stewart herself dropped out of high school in Grade 9.
“The reason I went back and started at university was because I saw a need and wanted to be part of the healing in our communities,” she says.
Programs like SOAR are attempting to close the education gap for Indigenous peoples in Canada and the city. Toronto has one of the largest Indigenous populations in the country. Those without an undergraduate degree have great difficulty competing in the job market with the 38.6 per cent of Torontonians who do have degrees.
Since Indigenous peoples are the fastest-growing population in the country, schools have a vested business interest in vying for their attention, as well as a social responsibility to be inclusive.
“The colleges in and around Toronto have great programs that support Aboriginal students,” says Stewart. “And the research really shows that when students, especially Aboriginal students, have access to cultural support within the university, they do better.”
Future Further, an online resource portal hosted by the Council of Ontario Universities, highlights all the services that Indigenous students can access when trying to decide where to attend school. The mistrust for schools in Indigenous communities runs deep, which means the resources made available must run deeper.
Kyle Edwards is an Ojibwe journalism student in his third year at Ryerson. He thinks one of the biggest obstacles facing would-be students is optics.
“When Indigenous youth look at school or university, they don’t see themselves represented fairly, and that can be really disenchanting,” he says.
Despite this, he describes his school experience as a positive one and has accessed many of the Indigenous-specific resources on campus. People at Ryerson have recently been working hard to address the needs of Indigenous students, particularly because of its nefarious connection to residential schools. The university’s namesake, Egerton Ryerson, advocated a theory of separate education for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians, laying the framework for residential schools.
This is all part of a larger attempt by universities to become safer spaces for Indigenous students. After the release of the Truth and Reconciliation’s recommendations last year, Universities Canada was one of the first national organizations to step forward and collectively establish principles aimed at closing the education gap. The organization, representing 97 universities across the country, calls for schools to recognize the importance of traditional knowledge, work to indigenize curriculum and build spaces of cultural importance.
Or perhaps it’s all about challenging the traditional perceptions about identity, place and belonging.
As Franks says: “You can stay in touch with your culture, even in a place like Toronto, which is the farthest thing from a reserve.”
Resources for Indigenous students in Ontario
This online portal helps Indigenous students navigate everything to do with post-secondary education. From the admissions process to financial aid to well-being on campus, this resource from the Council of Ontario Universities helps to bridge the gap between students and campus. futurefarther.ca
For Indigenous students looking for financial assistance with their university or college pursuits, Indspire offers a collection of bursaries and scholarships. indspire.ca
ONECA Aboriginal Student Transitions Project
This list of academic programs in Ontario for Indigenous students includes adult education programs, career support, health and wellness initiatives, -financial assistance, child care resources and tips for applying to post-secondary education. oneca.com
Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres
Providing resources and services for urban Indigenous individuals, Friendship Centres help to incorporate Indigenous experiences into major cities across the province. With roughly 80 per cent of Ontario’s Indigenous population living off--reserve, they have a large community to work with. ofifc.org
This story was originally published on March 25, 2016.