A bottom-up approach to developing Indigenous education

An innovative support programme is seeking to boost participation of Indigenous Canadian youth in higher education, which has historically been low compared to the general population.

It is hoped that systems established in Vancouver Island University on Canada’s Pacific coast, and Yukon College in the far north-west, will help guide the development of follow-up projects.

The programme is being financed by the Mastercard Foundation, which funds education and financial services for underprivileged communities worldwide.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

It has allocated CA$13.5 million (US$10.1 million) for Vancouver Island and CA$5 million (US$3.7 million) to the Yukon, with 344 students being assisted in the former and 180 in the latter project – both scheduled to run until 2022. This money supports students from First Nations communities on Vancouver Island and on the British Columbia mainland coast facing the island, and in the Yukon, both meeting the direct and indirect costs of studying, while financing support services and Indigenous staff at these institutions.

The project has been inspired by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which was established to heal rifts between Indigenous and other Canadians created by past oppression and injustice and ongoing social and economic problems. One of its calls to action has been to boost the quality of education among Canada’s Indigenous population.

In that spirit, a key to the success of this EleV programme, said Mastercard Foundation Associate Director of Canadian Programs, Jennifer Brennan, is involving First Nations communities and their governments in designing the projects and controlling how this funding is spent.

With these communities often being small, often remote, usually culturally distinct – from each other and other Canadians – “a one-size-fits-all approach would not work,” said Brennan. And while such social complexity has stalled past top-down federal government efforts to boost Indigenous higher education participation in Canada, Brennan thinks it actually can be an asset, if communities are empowered to say how the programmes work: “The complexity needs to drive a much more collaborative approach … [in deciding] to create capacity.”

Equipping graduates

Two key goals run through both projects: increasing higher education participation through partnerships between institutions and communities, with younger people especially being consulted on support system development; and trying to ensure graduates are equipped to bring social and economic reform to their communities, especially by building public sector administrative skills, enabling local people to undertake local government jobs.

Effective administration can drive local economic growth: according to Canadian 2016 data, 23.6% of Indigenous people in Canada are on low incomes, compared to 13.8% of other Canadians.

By taking account of the different needs of the two participating higher education institutions’ catchment areas, the Mastercard Foundation has allowed for great flexibility in how these systems are designed, with maximum local community input. This is not just in original design, but also in dynamically responding to feedback and changing how they operate going forward.

The Vancouver Island project, for instance, is largely focused on direct financial support, offering 250 scholarships through one-for-one deals with First Nations bands (a unit of government similar to a small local council), who have agreed to fund 250 scholarships themselves, tapping their own education budgets.

So far, said Brennan, this has meant an additional 344 Indigenous higher education students have enrolled at the university in Nanaimo. This project has also paid for ‘community navigators’ working at the university who help First Nations students deal with issues such as timetabling, accommodation and counselling, with the aim of reducing previously elevated higher education drop-out rates among Indigenous youth.

The project for Yukon College, based in Whitehorse, has aided 180 students, with assistance services designed with the territory’s 14 First Nations communities, who have negotiated an unusual level of political autonomy for such political units in Canada.

Outreach centres

Here, the programme has helped the college establish outreach centres within Indigenous communities, many of which are far from Whitehorse, to help students studying at home, with some courses offered online.

The project also funds a summer school at Yukon College, so First Nations youths can taste higher education studies, with the aim of improving enrolment. And it has also placed staff at the correctional facility in Whitehorse, to help First Nations jailed youth take courses, so that they can be better qualified to undertake solid work on their release at home. Indigenous youth made up 46% of admissions to youth correctional services in Canada in 2016-17, while being just 8% of youths nation-wide.

With the birth rate in Indigenous communities being four to five times higher than in other Canadian communities, demand is growing for well-trained graduates to serve an Indigenous community in Canada that already numbers more than 1.6 million people out of 36.7 million in total.

Only 4% of Indigenous people in Canada living in their traditional and historic communities (usually rural) have a university degree compared to 25% of all Canadians. That proportion of graduates rises to 10% when including residents of Canadian towns and cities. Indigenous people in Canada include First Nations tribes, Inuit people living in the far north, and Métis, of mixed Indigenous and European ancestry.

The bottom-up process of decision-making in the Vancouver Island University project has built on long-term liaison relationships between the university and more than 40 organisations, from band councils and smaller rural communities to urban Indigenous and Métis organisations.

They have been asked to request help from the Mastercard Foundation project, mainly in additional scholarships, but also assistance in finding external bursaries where matching funds are not sufficiently high. These requests have been made through meetings with one or a group of organisations, and an umbrella meeting of all island Indigenous groups, known as Hwulmuxw Mustimuxw Siiem (‘People of this Place’ in English).

Developing a community voice

As well as helping orientate resources, this consultation is also feeding the Indigenous community wishes into curriculum and course development at the university, for example, in forestry, eco-tourism, education, business skills and ‘guardianship’ courses – which enable Indigenous graduates to better protect local natural resources, a cultural priority for their communities.

Sharon Hobenshield, director at Vancouver Island University’s Aboriginal Education Office, said such liaison was critically important: “You cannot do Indigenous programming within an institution without a community voice – or else that’s colonialism all over again.”

Her university has a strong tradition of knitting social justice into its work, and “the Indigenous space fits into that”, she added.

The local liaison used to develop Mastercard Foundation-associated projects in the Yukon is similarly comprehensive, noted Tosh Southwick, associate vice president for Indigenous engagement and reconciliation at Yukon College.

Each of the 14 First Nations communities appoints a representative that attends meetings at the college to discuss courses, recruitment and support; and these communities also send Elders to the college, where they get involved in teaching traditional knowledge, Indigenous language projects, counselling and more. Southwick also maintains close relations with community leaders and the college consults closely with its students.

While Southwick said it is too early to say how many more First Nations students Yukon College has recruited as a result of the EleV programme, she said it has had a positive impact on building the proportion of students (now 30%-35%) who hail from Yukon Indigenous communities.

It is an important time for the institution to grow, as it plans to become a Yukon University in 2020, responsible for designing and awarding its own degrees. It has already created its own Indigenous governance degree, which is open to all Canadians. And it already insists that all college graduates demonstrate core competence in Indigenous knowledge (including language and cultural issues, history and more), whose content has been developed in cooperation with Yukon First Nations.

How the Mastercard Foundation programme will continue to support First Nations student recruitment and retention, Southwick could not specify – because the programme is being designed in a dynamic way with local communities.

“We’re not sure where we are going, because we are building, together,” she said.

Looking ahead beyond Vancouver Island and the Yukon, Brennan said that early conversations were being staged between the foundation and other higher education institutions in Canada to develop new systems improving local Indigenous university and college enrolment.

The success of the Vancouver Island and Yukon projects were generating interest, she said. “These institutions have developed a remarkable level of partnerships,” she stressed.