OUSA has long recognized that certain marginalized groups face significant barriers in accessing post-secondary education in Ontario. In particular, Aboriginal peoples in Canada face multiple and system barriers to attaining and succeeding in post-secondary education, including a long history of discrimination, and a current pattern of underfunding of Aboriginal education. Even as Aboriginal attainment has increased across Canada, widening participation more generally has meant that the attainment gap between Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal peoples is in fact widening. [1]

aboriginal attainment

Given the pressing need to mitigate the barriers experienced by Aboriginal students, OUSA’s Aboriginal Students Policy Paper was brought forward for revision and renewal by the 39th General Assembly, hosted at Queen’s University in March 2014.  Authored by Thomas Pritchard (Queen’s AMS) and Stephen Franchetto (WLUSU), this paper was heavily informed by OUSA’s consultation with Aboriginal students and staff at Aboriginal Student Centres. OUSA would like to thank all of the staff, students, and stakeholders who took the time to share their experiences, and to offer ideas and solutions.

Guided by our focus groups and interviews, the updated policy paper included a number of new or expanded sections. These included:

  • Broadening our focus on the experiences of Aboriginal students in K-12. Students call on both federal and provincial governments to invest in the success of Aboriginal students at school, whether in band-schools or in the provincial public system. Further, students call on the provincial government to better integrate Aboriginal content into the curriculum for all Ontarian schools, and to require Ontario’s teachers to take a module on Aboriginal education as part of their training.
  • Renewing our call for the uncapping of federal assistance for First Nations students [2] and for the provincial government to expand the Aboriginal Bursary to meet the unmet need of Aboriginal students. Students also believe the provincial government should improve administration of the Aboriginal Bursary, increase funding for the Ontario Distance Grant,  and provide targeted funding for Métis students.
  • Calling for sustainable long-term funding for Aboriginal student centres. Students recognize that Aboriginal students may require additional support, cultural safe spaces, day care services etc in order to succeed at their studies. The current provincial funding model is unpredictable and limited to three-year cycles: students believe sustainable long-term funding for Aboriginal student centres should be found to ensure the viability of these crucial services.
  • Including an entirely new section on employment outcomes for Aboriginal graduates. Recognizing that Aboriginal graduates often face additional barriers in gaining employment both in and out of study, students recommend that institutions provide targeted careers services for Aboriginal students, and explore strategies to increase the numbers of Aboriginal students able to undertake work-integrated learning opportunities.
  • Calling for institutional transformation in order to ensure Ontario’s universities provide a welcoming environment, that values Aboriginal cultures and systems of knowledge. Suggested strategies include providing anti-racist Aboriginal cultural training, meaningfully including Aboriginal culture as part of the campus, including Aboriginal perspectives and pedagogies in the curriculum. Further, students believe that institutions that are sited on traditional territories should commit to recognizing Aboriginal land claims at major events, for example convocation.

Finally, OUSA calls for a framework of evaluative and accountability measures to be established, in order to monitor the success of initiatives aimed at improving Aboriginal students access, participation and graduation rates.

For me, perhaps the most striking aspect of the conversations over the course of the three-day conference was the shock of some students at the conditions and barriers Aboriginal students continue to face. For many of us, it is almost unthinkable that children in Canada go to schools without running water, or where the teachers are unable to afford the textbooks they need for their class. And yet this is the lived reality of many children living on First Nations reserves. Without investment in the future of these children, many will fail to complete high school, let alone attend post-secondary. This ongoing crisis must remain at the forefront of public discourse, particularly as the recent resignation of Shawn Atleo as National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations has led to the shelving of the heavily debated First Nations Education Act. [3]

Following the approval of this policy paper, OUSA looks forward to continuing discussions with stakeholders and bringing these recommendations forward to government.

To read OUSA’s Aboriginal Students Policy Paper, click here.

Ailsa Bristow
OUSA Research Analyst

[1] Based on data from the Census (1996, 2001, 2006) and National Household Survey (2011), as presented in Gordon & White (2013) The Supply Side of Aboriginal Post-Secondary Education in Canada.

[2] The federal PSSSP program has been capped at 2 per cent increases since 1996, well below inflation and the actual need of First Nations students.

[3] To read more about the First Nations Education Act, click here.