In the 1950s, it was possible to count the number of students from an aboriginal background studying at Canadian universities on the fingers of one hand.
Numbers have grown substantially since then, with an estimated 25,000 aboriginal students now accessing higher education in the country. But the educational achievement of this group still lags well behind the national average.
According to the 2006 census, 8 per cent of aboriginal Canadians have a degree, compared with 23 per cent of the population as a whole.
The Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada has identified improving aboriginal access and attainment as “one of the most compelling national issues”.
Paul Davidson, president of the AUCC, explained the scale of the problem: “The aboriginal population in Canada is growing at around three times the national rate, but university access and attainment is about one-third of the national rate,” he said.
One problem for those working to improve opportunities is federal student aid.
The AUCC’s recent report, Value of a Degree for Aboriginal Canadians, cites an estimate by the Assembly of First Nations that from 2001 to 2006, more than 10,000 aboriginal students were denied funding by the federal government.
Although funding for higher education in Canada has not suffered cuts as severe as those seen in the UK and the US in recent years, the federal government capped the rise in financial assistance available to students during the last funding crisis for Canadian higher education in the mid-1990s. The cap has remained in place for 15 years.
“At precisely the time when the aboriginal student population is ballooning and at a time when, frankly, the cost of education is increasing, the programme has been capped. So, ironically, there are fewer federally supported aboriginal students in Canadian universities today than there were a decade ago,” Mr Davidson said.
He acknowledged the financial pressures that the federal government faced, and estimated that an extra C$300 million (£192 million) would have been needed to have kept pace with the growth in the number of young aboriginal Canadians.
“Governments just aren’t allocating those kinds of resources at the moment,” he said.
However, he was adamant that the time to act on the issue was now.
“My great concern is that we will miss this opportunity,” Mr Davidson said.
“It will have a profound effect right across the country; it really does depend on everybody – universities, the aboriginal community and federal and provincial governments – coming to the table. It’s time for all Canadian stakeholders to step up and honour the commitments that have been made…and say, ‘we can all do better’.”