U of T has received an anonymous donation of $5 million for the improvement of indigenous education and research.
The donation is expected to introduce a five-year initiative for the improvement and enhancement of OISE’s efforts towards indigenous education, beginning with literacy in the first year.
“There is a widespread misunderstanding that aboriginal people in Canada all get free education,” said UTM political science professor Graham White, who teaches a course on aboriginal politics. He added that while some aboriginals do have access to free education, many of them don’t, “so getting financial help for fees, residence, travel, and everything else is a big issue”.
With extensive research and visits to the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and the Yukon regularly, White also observes that indigenous students who grew up in “very small, remote, close-knit communities” require special help adjusting to life in larger cities. However, he said that U of T has more students from most aboriginal communities, which means that the donation has a potentially greater impact.
Sean Kinsella, the coordinator of residential transition programs and an aboriginal student himself, spoke about some of the challenges that indigenous students face in Canada.
“I was fortunate to grow up in an atmosphere where indigenous values were very much present, but indigenous identity was denied and minimized due to the racist policies, actions, and attitudes of both the Canadian government and the people around my family,” he commented.
“It is unacceptable that in this day and age […] we must continually prove our humanity as indigenous peoples and fight for a voice and space in our institutions of higher learning on our own lands.”
He mentioned some common issues that arise for indigenous students: inadequate representation among staff and faculty, a sense of isolation and separation from their communities, the lack of awareness of the everyday obstacles indigenous people face, and what he called “the silencing that routinely occurs around indigenous knowledge and voices”, specifically those of indigenous women.
Kinsella is currently completing a master’s in education that focuses on aboriginal issues, and also serves as chair of the circle of directors at the Peel Aboriginal Network and is a member of the Aboriginal Advisory Council.
The $5-million donation is expected to contribute towards policy changes and a greater focus on literacy during its first year. It is also expected to aid new partnerships among aboriginal communities, government agencies, and non-governmental organizations to improve indigenous education.