When Eldon Yellowhorn attended Simon Fraser University in the early 1990s, he was one of two First Nations graduate students, and he says he was among fewer than a dozen indigenous people enrolled at the institution.
Now the chair of the department of First Nations studies at SFU, Yellowhorn notes that a lot has changed since then. The university now has more than 500 students who self-identify as aboriginal and is seeing a record intake of about 125 new aboriginal students for the fall semester.
Yellowhorn says that increasingly, those aboriginal students are coming to the university at a young age, rather than as mature students.
“This year for the first time, we’re noticing that a majority of the students who are taking advantage of that [SFU’s aboriginal undergraduate admission policy] are coming directly from high school,” he told the Georgia Straight by phone. “So there’s a real sea change taking place there.”
According to Statistics Canada, the country’s aboriginal population is much younger and growing faster than the nonaboriginal population, representing 4.3 percent of the total Canadian population in 2011.
The goal is to increase the number of aboriginal students at SFU to a comparable percentage, according to Yellowhorn. The university has an aboriginal strategic plan, and targeted recruitment efforts have expanded to particular aboriginal communities and institutions.
The archaeology professor also wants to see an increase in the number of faculty members who are indigenous.
“If we were to apply that same metric of [between four and] five percent of the general population equivalent, that would mean we’d require about 30 faculty, spread across the campus at different departments and different faculties, and we’re nowhere near that,” he said. “We have a department of First Nations studies that has aboriginal faculty, and we have some in education…who have just started their careers in higher education as professors. So we’re still kind of at the front end of that.”
Shelly Johnson, a professor in the school of social work at the University of British Columbia, also wants to see an increase in the number of indigenous faculty members. Johnson was the principal investigator for an “indigenizing the academy” conference held at UBC this spring. She notes that as a result of the event, UBC president Stephen Toope agreed to meet with new indigenous faculty members twice a year to discuss issues including curriculum and recruitment and retention of faculty and students.
Johnson says that this year, the social-work department will be holding the orientation day for all of its 181 students on the Musqueam reserve.
“It’s our beginning steps to demonstrate our acknowledgment of the unceded territory and…help students understand what exactly that means,” she said in a phone interview. “For a [department in a] mainstream university to hold its first day of orientation for all of its students in a First Nations community is pretty significant.”
Johnson, who is Saulteaux from the Keeseekoose First Nation in Saskatchewan, sees the move as particularly symbolic for the school of social work.
“Social workers have been implicated in the worst experiences that aboriginal people have had in this country,” she said, “and that includes social workers being involved in removing children to residential schools, social workers removing children from their families under the child welfare system.
“And we have a lot to acknowledge and reconcile for the profession of social work and its impact on aboriginal communities. So this is a very, very small beginning step to humbly acknowledge that and to say we want to develop a different relationship with indigenous peoples.”
According to Jenny Phelps, aboriginal coordinator and assistant dean in the faculty of graduate studies, UBC has seen an increasing number of aboriginal students enroll in graduate- and doctoral-level programs, with 109 master’s students and 47 Ph.D. students registered as of March 2012.
The total number of aboriginal students at the university’s Vancouver campus is more than 750, reports Graeme Joseph, the coordinator of strategic aboriginal initiatives in the office of the vice-president, students. He notes that many students transfer to the university from other postsecondary institutions, and that a growing number are coming directly from secondary school.
“The colleges and the regional universities play a really significant role in aboriginal-student postsecondary education,” he told the Straight by phone. “That being said, the number of high-school students is increasing, and we’re seeing students come not only from British Columbia, but from right across Canada.”
Randy Robinson is starting a degree in UBC’s faculty of law this fall, after studying in Langara’s aboriginal studies program from 2010 to 2012 and in the Program of Legal Studies for Native People at the University of Saskatchewan.
He believes that the increasing number of aboriginal students attending postsecondary school is closely linked to what he calls “a very active time” for reconciliation between indigenous and nonindigenous people.
Robinson, who is particularly interested in international law, says he was motivated to pursue postsecondary education by his mother and his siblings. He views the recruitment and retention of indigenous students in the postsecondary system as crucial to providing mentorship to the younger aboriginal generation.
“Not just the ones coming out of high school now, but the children that are being born now, and their children and their children,” he said in a phone interview. “Those are the people that I feel are gaining from having us as sort of a pioneer generation of going into education.
“I know my grandparents on my indigenous side didn’t have postsecondary education, and my mum was the first one to sort of go that direction, and she thrived in education, and she really instilled those values in us, and it’s working out well.”
Shirley Hardman, senior adviser on indigenous affairs at the University of the Fraser Valley, says that based on input from the aboriginal community, the school is making efforts to “indigenize” the education experience “from the doorway in to the doorway out”.
“So that all students that come to the university are aware of the traditional territory of our Sto:lo people, where we’re located, and the history of the Valley, and that aboriginal students see themselves reflected and included in everything we do at the university. So that’s in our services, in our programs, in our faculty and staff makeup,” she told the Straight by phone.
The university offers programs that focus on aboriginal subject matter, including one on the Halq’eméylem language, and student resources at the school include a gathering space modelled on a traditional longhouse.
Hardman noted that when she graduated from high school in 1980, there weren’t aboriginal role models in the universities. Like Yellowhorn, she has also seen an increase in the number of younger aboriginal students entering university.
“So it was kind of a lonely, overwhelming place to go,” she said. “Now, working kind of in concert with the K to 12 system, we’re seeing [an] increased number of graduates from the K to 12 system that are coming in university-ready.
“We’re also experiencing what I call a collective boost in self-esteem, where the universities have become these inviting, reflective places where I can see myself included, and I can imagine myself at the university, and so it’s far easier for me to take that step into the university and become a university student.”
Increasing the number of indigenous students in postsecondary institutions isn’t just about recruitment, according to Scott Clark, executive director of the Aboriginal Life in Vancouver Enhancement Society.
Clark’s organization has been collaborating on a strategy aimed at improving high-school graduation rates among indigenous students by working with universities, colleges, and community organizations.
“Universities can’t do this on their own,” he told the Straight by phone. “Although we are beginning to get successes, you know when 70 percent of our kids aren’t getting through the existing [Vancouver school] system, then we need to find better ways to support those children, those families, those youth, so they can actually make it into university and college.”
Other aboriginal postsecondary programs include the Indigenous Independent Digital Filmmaking program at Capilano University, which coordinator Doreen Manuel says focuses on aboriginal storytelling.
“Really, our history hasn’t been told,” she said in a phone interview. “There’s just so little that has been told about our people from our perspective. And that’s just starting to emerge in a really powerful way now.”
At SFU, an executive MBA in aboriginal business and leadership was launched last year—the first of its kind in the country. While students don’t have to be aboriginal to enroll in the program, most of the 25 current students have an indigenous background, and they come from across Canada, according to Ulrike Radermacher, the associate director of graduate programs at SFU’s Beedie School of Business.
“If you have a class on business and government, you would for example discuss treaties, the specific legislations that aboriginal communities are subject to, and business has to know that,” she told the Straight by phone.
Justin Wilson teaches several classes in Langara’s aboriginal studies program, including a community development course that has seen students take part in projects such as a campus-wide indigenous gathering and an academic symposium on the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline.
He says the program is designed to prepare students for graduate-level work. Many go on to law school, or to study in fields including urban planning, social work, and education.
“It’s good to see that,” Wilson said in a phone interview. “We know that we’re doing our job, and that’s certainly not all of it. We also take pride in the fact that we’re helping individuals become more involved in their communities, no matter what they’re doing.”