During my undergrad years at Simon Fraser University, I recall attending at least two of the annual feasts held by the First Nations Student’s Association (FNSA) where they gave a symbolic report card to the university administration for its work with Aboriginal students. From my recollection, the grade was usually a C-, for minimally passing. One of the many reasons for this was the underrepresentation of Indigenous students at SFU.
In 2017, ten years later, we find ourselves in what is supposed to be a new epoch of university relations to Indigenous communities. It is the post-Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) era where the lessons of the past are supposedly learned. SFU even has an “Aboriginal Reconciliation Council” (ARC), whose mandate is, "to facilitate and support broad discussions of how the 94 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission will be addressed at the University.” Consequently, “Simon Fraser University has committed $9M toward a project or series of projects that will promote reconciliation within the SFU community."
Yet in April 2017, SFU abruptly announced it would be closing its two Aboriginal University Transition Programs (AUTP): The Aboriginal University Pre-Health Program and the Aboriginal University Prep Program (AUPP). This means an end to programs that help Indigenous students transition into university in a supportive environment designed to blend Aboriginal knowledge with academic skills. One of the most frustrating aspects of the decision to close the program is that SFU had already allocated its funding for the 2017-2018 school year, and yet that cohort will not go ahead. It seems ludicrous, because even if SFU wants to suspend or change the AUTP, they have the funds to keep it in place to help students next year and use the year to explore other pathways.
The AUPP specifically has been running for six years and has assisted at least 80 students. This may not seem like a huge amount, however a CBC article reports, "[AUPP Instructor Natalie] Knight says the program is capped at 12 students, and they were short by three students this year, and only one short the year before." In addition, hundreds are coming to the defense of these programs, including SFU’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology. A first petition (on google doc) received 464 signatures, it has now been put on a more secure website, and collected an additional 200 signatures (there is a link at the end of this article). A blog has also been setup with some testimonials from alumni of the program.
Recalling the FNSA feasts I attended at SFU, I found an old 2004 article from SFU’s student newspaper the Peak about the third annual event. After giving the SFU administration a grade of C- the FNSA open letter explained, "Commitment to inclusive equality in educational opportunities is . . . a process and not an event . . . We also know that decreasing services, rather than increasing them, will not be a solution to meeting our goals of building for the future." Decreasing services will not be a solution to meeting our goals? It seems 13 years and the administration at SFU remains oblivious to this rational and logical conclusion. One cannot cut programs in order to improve the situation for Indigenous students, you need to broaden and improve them!
An article in the Burnaby Now Newspaper, “SFU Criticized for Cutting Transition Program for Aboriginal Students,” explains, "The VP [SFU Vice President academic and provost, Peter Keller] maintained the university has tried hard to make the program work, and the decision to cut the program was not a question of resources. [AUPP Instructor Natalie] Knight, however, disagreed. She argued the university could increase enrolment in the programs by putting more resources into recruitment and waiving the $2,970 program tuition fee.” This program was by no means perfect; the tuition of nearly $3,000 is definitely a barrier for many students. However, tuition is not the program’s shortcoming; tuition is an issue SFU could take care of in order to confront their apparent enrollment problem. Moreover, no one seems to be making the claim that the program is unsuccessful in its goal of transitioning students, so if it is working, why not work on ways to improve enrollment or investigate the causes of the problem. I have read five accounts from former students online and all have been positive, explaining how the program successfully helped prepare them for future studies.
No word on anyone in SFU’s administration bothering to ask why enrollment was down, and use that as a kick in the butt to do better. And “why” is really the crucial question. According to Statistics Canada figures from 2011, only 9.8% of Canada’s Aboriginal population (self-identified First Nations, Metis & Inuit) holds a "University certificate, diploma or degree at bachelor level or above" compared to 26.5% of non-Aboriginal people in Canada. Many barriers prevent Indigenous people in Canada from attending post-secondary institutions. These barriers can take many forms: some are linked to the intergenerational trauma of residential schools; a lack of interest in post-secondary (often based on the injustices perpetrated by the education system in Canada against Indigenous people); the failure of the education system to reflect Indigenous languages, cultures, histories and realities; the underfunding/lack of on-reserve education facilities; the lack of physical and mental health services both on and off-reserve; as well as other factors. In addition to these obstacles, there are the barriers that face both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students across Canada: skyrocketing tuition fees, high cost of living, and the nagging question that once you have a degree, will there be any jobs available in your field?
Any of these factors could be contributing to the declining enrollment in AUTP programs. None of which the program was given a chance to investigate, assess, or change.
The time for change is now!
This spring season marks a convergence of events: 3 years since the closing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada; Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, will soon mark the halfway point in his mandate; and Canada is celebrating its 150th birthday.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), uncovered for the average person, the criminal legacy of Canada’s residential school system, which saw generations of Indigenous children stolen from their families and communities and forced into religious schools meant to “kill the Indian in the child”. Two years ago, the TRC published a document with 94 “Calls to Action” in order to expose the truth of the legacy of residential schools and to promote ‘reconciliation’ between Aboriginal people and the government, as well as, non-Aboriginal people in Canada.
Yet we consistently see the need to improve formal post-secondary education numbers for Aboriginal people in Canada, and the need for serious education for non-Indigenous people. The need to expose the truth of Canada’s colonial past & imperialist present is clear. However, the government is unwilling to make any changes beyond lip service and many people in Canada continue to expound racist and uneducated views about Indigenous people. Just a few examples that have been in the media over the past few months:
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s decision to eliminate all comment sections on articles related to Indigenous topics due to the amount of racist trolling their websites receive.
In March 2017, Conservative Senator Lynn Beyak defended the residential school system and insisted that negative reports are overshadowing the stories of the "good deeds" accomplished by "well-intentioned" religious teachers. She expressed, "I speak partly for the record, but mostly in memory of the kindly and well-intentioned men and women and their descendants — perhaps some of us here in this chamber — whose remarkable works, good deeds and historical tales in the residential schools go unacknowledged for the most part."
The ongoing “debate” about whether or not the government’s residential school system was a genocidal campaign against Indigenous people, when clearly, if one reads the United Nations definition of genocide, it was. No, not “cultural genocide”, just “genocide”. Yet Canada is not ready to stomach or admit to this objective fact. (Read definition here: http://www.un.org/en/genocideprevention/genocide.html)
While the national Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women has finally begun after years of denial and delay, the families of missing and murdered Indigenous women are claiming the inquiry is not reaching out to them. The process it becoming mired in controversy and fear it will not actually hear the stories of those who have been fighting tooth and nail for this inquiry and waiting for answers from the government and police about their loved ones for decades.
Today in Canada more than 140 Aboriginal communities lack access to safe drinking water. While the 2016 budget announced $1.8 billion towards on-reserve water infrastructure over 5 years, in February 2017, the David Suzuki Foundation and the Council of Canadians released a report, "Glass Half Empty? Year 1 Progress Toward Resolving Drinking Water Advisories in Nine First Nations in Ontario". This report demonstrates that the Liberals are already behind on their promises and unless measures are taken now, the government will not meet its 5-year plan. This example is just the simple issue of clean drinking water – not to mention the more complex ones: like implementing the 94 TRC Calls to action, improving access to education, housing, health, etc.
Finally the fact that Canada is getting ready to celebrate its 150 birthday is the cherry on top of this unappetizing cake. While it is true that many enjoy a standard of living in Canada unimaginable in other parts of the world, we must recognize that this is not due to the superiority of Canada, but the fact that all of this was established based on the suppression of the rights of others, Indigenous people and many other minorities. It is time for non-Indigenous people to commit to listen and learn from the beautiful and distinct First Nations, Metis and Inuit people of these lands. Part of this means opening space for Indigenous people where they have traditionally been excluded, like Canada’s post-secondary institutions. We have a responsibility, at this time, to call specifically on SFU to reinstate its Aboriginal University Transition Programs, and to work with the Indigenous communities to create the post-secondary educational opportunities they would like to see, which are also free and accessible.
To sign the petition to reinstate AUTP at SFU please visit: https://reinstateautp.wordpress.com
Follow Tamara Hansen on Twitter: @THans01
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