Indigenous students face systemic barriers in higher education pursuit

‘Diversity not only brings more perspectives, it brings in different people, more people, more compassion, more understanding and more money’

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As a young Indigenous woman, Nikki Ballantyne carries the deep scars of intergenerational trauma — her mother’s abuse in residential schools, the homelessness and addictions that followed, and the eventual overdose deaths of her brother and mother — ghosts of a troubled past that still haunt her today.

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But it was also that suffering — facing it and struggling through it — that gave her the strength to fight for a better life, ultimately graduating high school and earning a degree in sociology at Mount Royal University.

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“I remember how tough my high school years were. I dropped out, struggled with alcohol, like my mom. I tried to work, but I couldn’t handle that either,” said Ballantyne, originally from Little Red River First Nation in Northern Saskatchewan.

And as she fell in and out of a Calgary high school outreach program for at-risk students, Ballantyne was repeatedly told that because she was Indigenous, she shouldn’t bother with higher education.

“I remember my math teacher looking at me, saying, ‘You’re not going to succeed, if you’re already struggling this much, why even bother?’

“Even my social worker at the time, she’d say to me, ‘No, you can’t try university, you can’t do that, you won’t succeed.’”

Things were tough at home for Ballantyne, one of four kids. Her single mom was forced into a residential school in Saskatchewan at the age of 10, where she was physically and sexually assaulted.

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“My mom carried a lot of trauma, so she really struggled to provide us kids with all of the things we needed too.”

Two years ago, Ballantyne lost her eldest brother to a drug overdose, and one year later, lost her mom the same way. Yet from that deep loss, she found strength.

“Despite everything I always had to be dealing with, I would see my mom and think, I’m not going to let myself become that. I still see her ghost sometimes.

“But all of it has given me a lot of strength, a lot of drive to get through everything, and make sure I got a good education, and do something with my life.”

Students often feel alone, isolated

Ballantyne’s story parallels many others in a unique report released by the Deloitte Future of Canada Centre titled “Voices of Indigenous Youth Leaders on Reconciliation,” coinciding with National Indigenous History Month.

Young Indigenous students and new graduates, like Ballantyne, described the systemic barriers and discrimination they faced as they tried to pursue higher education and enter the workforce.

First Nations, Métis and Inuit youth describe often arriving on university campuses feeling alone and isolated, many having attended school solely on their remote reserves.

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Many battled intergenerational trauma, feeling outcast among classmates and teachers, while others described economic barriers, such as the high costs of rent and tuition.

According to the report, the number of Indigenous youth with a bachelor’s degree or higher increased by 85 per cent between 2011 and 2021.

But there is still a significant completion gap, the report noted. In 2021, only 11 per cent of Indigenous peoples held a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 35 per cent of non-Indigenous peoples.

The report also states Indigenous graduates are facing barriers trying to break into the professional and financial sectors, employed 65 per cent less often than their non-Indigenous peers.

Legacies of colonialism, government policies continue to impact families

Dean Janvier, director Indigenous Prairies/BC Government & Public Services at Deloitte’s Assurance Services, said Indigenous youth have made great strides, but are still decades behind their non-Indigenous counterparts.

“There is still quite a gap there. And it remains because of the lingering effects of colonialism, the policies of the federal government, designed to keep Indigenous people on reserves, keep them poorly educated and stream them into skilled trades rather than professional, higher educational endeavours.

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“That is the legacy.”

Janvier explained that while there have been significant efforts in recent decades to address that, the impacts of residential schools, the Sixties Scoop and the ongoing child welfare crisis, “all of that continues to impact the ability of Indigenous families to support their children through higher education so they can compete on a level playing field.”

Ballantyne says while she has faced that intergenerational trauma, she was fortunate to find support through Mount Royal’s Indigenous University Bridging Program, which allows students of Indigenous ancestry to complete high school prerequisites for their post-secondary path.

The program is offered through the Iniskim Centre, a unique gathering place for MRU’s Indigenous students, offering learning supports, mentors or just friendship.

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“The Iniskim Centre gave me a huge sense of belonging,” Ballantyne said.

“It was where I could talk amongst friends, get that Indigenous sense of humour, that commonality that we all have, that non-Indigenous people wouldn’t even understand. It was just always my place to go.”

Nikki Ballantyne, a recent MRU graduate, was photographed at the Centennial courtyard on MRU campus on Wednesday, June 14, 2023.
Nikki Ballantyne says MRU’s Indigenous University Bridging Program offered through the Iniskim Centre gave her “a huge sense of belonging.” Photo by Azin Ghaffari /Postmedia

Many reasons why Indigenous students may struggle

Tori McMillan, interim director at the centre, says there are a multitude of reasons why Indigenous students struggle in school.

“Curriculum is a big issue, students are just not interested in learning things that don’t reflect their lived experiences or ways of knowing,” he said, adding that K-12 schools on reserves are limited in the ways they can prepare students for university.

“These schools, they don’t have science labs, kids don’t get field trips, art, band, all the things that work around reading writing arithmetic, that help students find their passions beyond Grade 12.”

The Iniskim Centre, he added, works to meet the needs of Indigenous students on many levels, from programs and mentorship to financial supports for housing and tuition.

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Nikki Ballantyne, a recent MRU graduate, left, and Tori McMillan, intern director at Iniskim Centre, were photographed at the Centennial courtyard on MRU campus on Wednesday, June 14, 2023.
The Iniskim Centre works to meet the needs of Indigenous students on many levels, says Tori McMillan. Photo by Azin Ghaffari /Postmedia

But even upon graduation, many students in the Deloitte report also described barriers in their job search, feeling discriminated against, and without the strong networks that many non-Indigenous students have through family and friends already succeeding in the workplace.

Ballantyne says that while she appreciates landing a part-time job at the University of Calgary last year, supporting students with disabilities, she and her Indigenous classmates faced myriad struggles transitioning to the workplace.

“As an Indigenous person applying for work, yes there are many struggles, I have had struggles,” she said.

“There are ‘stereotypes, there are biases. When you’re a First Nations person, it’s assumed you’re not going to work hard, you won’t show up on time, you won’t be dependable.

“Or the company you’re applying to knows they’ll have to add more cultural elements to their company, so that will be more work than it’s worth.”

Diversity brings ‘more understanding and more money’

But without hiring Indigenous people, Ballantyne says companies are losing out.

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“Diversity not only brings more perspectives, it brings in different people, more people, more compassion, more understanding and more money.”

The Deloitte report listed a number of recommendations for post-secondaries including hiring more Indigenous leaders, using trauma-informed approaches in supporting Indigenous students, making learning more inclusive and enhancing accessible student supports.

Recommendations for workplace recruitment included better supporting Indigenous-focused career readiness and offering placements tailored to Indigenous students.

Officials with the U of C were unable to provide an Indigenous spokesperson, but did offer a statement listing their services and supports for Indigenous students, including:

  • The Writing Symbols Lodge, a campus hub which provides a culturally-appropriate environment that supports the success of Indigenous students, including programs geared towards academic retention, career and employment, and youth outreach.
  • The implementation of Indigenous admission pathways which include bridging programs to support students who complete, with guaranteed admission to their desired major.
  • Waiving undergraduate application fees for Indigenous students who attend an on-campus or virtual Indigenous recruitment event.

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