Achievements under threat

January 11, 2002

Individuals from Canada's First Nations peoples have been enrolling in higher education in numbers that are the envy of other countries' aboriginal populations despite stagnant funding and persistent social problems.

Thirty years of activism, supreme court and constitutional victories and federal funding have led to more of Canada's native population filling university classrooms. Canada has one aboriginal university, 17 aboriginally controlled post-secondary institutes and growing native enrolment in the rest of its universities. Between 1988 and 1999, the number of aboriginal students pursuing higher education almost doubled, from 15,572 to more than ,000.

At the same time, a widening range of native studies courses has become available all over the country at every level of higher education. This year, students in 62 of Canada's 93 universities and university colleges can enter a lecture hall to find out how natives are treated in the Canadian criminal justice system, study the basic elements of Ojibwe language structure or learn about various aboriginal religions.

Enrolment is expected to continue to climb among native youth, who are the fastest growing segment of the Canadian population. The aboriginal population, 624,414 at the end of 1998, represents 2.2 per cent of Canada's population. It is expected to reach 822,000 by 2010.

Student numbers may be growing, but some of the problems that have plagued Canada's native population seem to have shown few signs of disappearing. While many of the country's 633 First Nation communities have achieved economic success and self-government, many face persistent social challenges on the reserve crown land that houses almost half the native population. Problems include high unemployment, poverty, a high incarceration rate, a suicide rate three times the Canadian average, an infant mortality rate double that of the general Canadian population and a host of environmental and health issues.

Many native graduates have used their studies to join the front-line human services for their people, such as teaching, social work and dentistry. One area of enrolment that still needs more native representation is medicine. Fewer than 500 of Canada's 50,000 physicians claim native ancestry. The University of British Columbia is trying to change that. It has set a goal of 5 per cent aboriginal enrolment to reflect the province's demographic, keeping the academic standards the same but loosening the other half of admission criteria.

That work may be in vain. The hunger for higher education is apparent, but the funding cannot stretch wide enough to feed the apparently insatiable appetite for university degrees. According to the national native lobby group, the Assembly of First Nations, the federal government programme that provides financial assistance to natives has a waiting list of more than 9,000 people. Some critics say that means only half of all eligible aboriginal students are pursuing higher education.

"The big issue is funding," said David Newhouse, an Onondaga raised at Six Nations and a professor of native studies at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario. He says natives have been hit hardest by rising tuition fees, which went up an average 44 per cent from 1995 to 2000. "Most aboriginal students come from families that are not middle class."

The 30,000 or so native students studying post-secondary education is a marked contrast to the mid-1960s, when just 200 status-Indians pursued higher education. Dr Newhouse says early activism in the 1970s convinced the federal government to establish continuous funding that covered tuition costs and some living expenses. He says federal assistance has been the biggest factor responsible for the successful numbers among natives.

But that funding that has been capped at C$300 million (£130 million). The AFN has been asking Ottawa to triple its current spending. No sign of that new money was seen in the latest federal budget at the end of last year.

Private endowment may be part of the solution. The University of Toronto recently matched a C$1 million private donation to set up community-based internships for undergraduates studying aboriginal law. Toronto has had an aboriginal law programme for more than a decade. More than 80 native students have completed it and gone on to prominent leadership roles in their communities.

The 1996 census showed that just 3 per cent of natives were enrolled in higher education compared with 13 per cent of the general population. That gap worries Dr Newhouse, who says universities must serve native and non-native populations.

"One of the purposes of higher education is to contribute to the development of society. If your own intellectual contribution is not part of that, then higher education is not serving those ends."

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