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Aboriginal post-secondary students: one-fifth of a person?

"The education of Indians consists not merely of training the mind but of a weaning of the habits and feelings of their ancestors and the acquirements of the language, arts and customs of civilized life." Egerton Ryerson, 1847

"I want to get rid of the Indian problem. I do not think as a matter of fact, that the country ought to continuously protect a class of people who are able to stand alone ... That has been the whole purpose of Indian education and advancement since the earliest times ... Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department ..." Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, 1920

The residential school system was the primary weapon to implement a federal policy designed to destroy the cultural identities of Aboriginal peoples. Despite the fact that academic education was far from a priority of these institutions, the federal government of the day did consider the possibility that "civilized" Aboriginal people might be able to experience higher education. Under the Indian Act, an individual would be required to give up their identity and all rights as an Aboriginal person in exchange for the right to get a post-secondary education. This law did not change until 1951-for many of us, this is our parents' generation. Is it any wonder that there are significant gaps in education attainment between Aboriginal peoples and Canadians?

The First Nations Technical Institute (FNTI) is an Aboriginal controlled post-secondary institute that was created in 1985 to provide access to post-secondary programs for Aboriginal people. We are succeeding, and have since been joined by a number of other Aboriginal controlled institutions in Ontario.

FNTI offers a variety of degree, diploma and certificate programs in partnership with provincially recognized colleges and universities. On the basis of Aboriginal student population, we are one of the largest post-secondary institutions in Ontario. The institute has gained domestic recognition for its community based education delivery approach and international recognition for work in Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition (PLAR) and adult education initiatives. Delegates from around the world attend our annual conference. This has led to our involvement in working with Indigenous nations, state governments, and industry in countries such as South Africa, Ecuador and Chile. Ironically, our international engagements are bringing us significant recognition while here in Ontario, Canada, we exist as the unwanted relative that neither jurisdiction wants to acknowledge.

The federal government has constitutional responsibility for "Indians" and acknowledges its responsibility for education on reserve. However, the federal government has attempted to limit its legal responsibility to Grade 12 and takes the position that post-secondary is a provincial responsibility. In Ontario, Aboriginal controlled institutions are not considered as colleges or universities but are instead treated as "Indians" which, of course, are a federal responsibility. FNTI is tired of being in the middle of an endless jurisdictional volleyball game, wondering whether we will exist from year to year. Both governments are aware of the conundrum, but neither has taken the initiative to address the situation. The bureaucrats to whom we are consistently directed are very nice people who have no power to resolve this matter.

Last month we were informed that in the upcoming school year the government of Ontario values an Aboriginal student attending FNTI at $1,677, approximately 20 per cent of the value of a student attending another college or university in this province. This is despite the fact that FNTI carries out all the program development and delivery functions of any other college and university, while delivering post-secondary programs that meet Ontario's approval requirements. We play by the same rules but not with the same equipment. For some reason I am reminded that for a long time the Indian Act identified a person as "an individual other than an Indian."

The premier of Ontario would like to be known as the education premier and established some impressive credentials to support this claim early in his term in office. The government of Ontario even created a post-secondary access and opportunities strategy for Aboriginal peoples and historically disadvantaged populations. It should also be noted that the premier supported the Kelowna accord, which made significant provisions for Aboriginal post-secondary education. However, if the government of Ontario truly believes in creating post-secondary access and opportunities for Aboriginal students, then the half-measures (1/5 measures?) need to be replaced with long term commitments based on fairness, equity and justice.

So Premier Dalton McGuinty, will the legacy of your initial term in office be one of groundbreaking leadership in achieving equity for FNTI and Aboriginal institutions? Or will you simply allow the status quo to prevail where institutions, their programs and students face uncertain futures year after year? I think you have shown your good heart in education and I trust you will act quickly to address the inequities. With fairness and equity, I have no doubt that we can achieve significant accomplishments in Aboriginal post-secondary education in Ontario.

Karihwakeron Tim Thompson is the president and chief administrative officer of FNTI.

By Karihwakeron Tim Thompson

Windspeaker Guest Columnist

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Author:Thompson, Karihwakeron Tim
Date:Sep 1, 2007
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