When I reflect on the changes I’ve seen in the postsecondary education sector, I’m immediately reminded of my grandparents — of the great strength and determination they showed to ensure the continuity and survival of our peoples, the land, our ways of knowing, our ways of being and our ways of relating to the world around us.
The stories of my own family have shown me that the challenges of going to university can seem insurmountable. However, the very fact that we are seeing so many Aboriginal learners succeed in postsecondary education demonstrates that this generation continues to walk with the same determination and strength as their grandparents – ready to take up the challenge of ensuring a future for our people – a future filled with every opportunity to live a good life.
That’s why campaigns like the Council of Ontario Universities’ Future Further initiative are so important. As part of the Let’s Take Our Future Further campaign, COU has launched the website www.futurefurther.ca, featuring compelling video testimonials from 13 role models who are studying or have recently graduated from an Ontario Universities.
By communicating positive messages about the achievements of Aboriginal Peoples and the ways in which they are making a difference to communities across Canada, we are not only celebrating and encouraging the 6,500 Aboriginal learners currently studying at Ontario universities, but inspiring other Aboriginal youth to see the benefit of higher education.
In my research, I have looked extensively at the Aboriginal student experience at university. The experiences and stories that I’ve heard from Aboriginal learners reflect my own experiences as a student. While many things have changed for the better, Aboriginal learners still face a great deal of obstacles in their pursuit of higher learning. In particular, the battle with racism and a lack of understanding of Aboriginal peoples, world views, and histories remain constant and significant barriers. It is this that drives my passion to bring about changes in the postsecondary education system
I recently spoke with an Aboriginal student who told me that there was a time when he didn’t really understand the importance of a university education. After finishing high school, he spent years working in a variety of positions. Then, one day, he was struck by the realization that we, as Aboriginal peoples, need to take control of our own affairs, because we really do know what’s best for our people, but in order to do this we must educate ourselves.
Despite challenges, we’re seeing increasing numbers of Aboriginal peoples taking control of their own destinies through education.
As an Anishnaabe leader, I’ve seen many more positive changes emerging today than when I was in school. In my own institution, Laurentian University, we’ve seen an increase in the number of Indigenous faculty hires, more attention to increasing Indigenous content in the curriculum, and a strong desire to ensure Aboriginal learners, staff, and faculty feel welcomed and are included on campus. We’ve also created a dedicated Indigenous space, the Indigenous Sharing and Learning Centre.
Ontario’s other universities are also just as committed to recognizing Aboriginal peoples on their campuses, putting in place important initiatives that are helping tackle the systemic changes that are needed to shift the academy.
So when I look out into society, I see Aboriginal peoples moving to take back control of their own affairs. I see a future filled with leaders in a variety of fields. I see leaders mobilizing change for the betterment of our people and I see a future filled with hope for aboriginal learners who are following their passion and finding their voice as they take their futures further.
Dr. Sheila Cote-Meek is the Associate Vice-President, Academic & Indigenous Programs at Laurentian University where she is responsible for university faculty relations as well as leading the development of Indigenous academic development across various disciplines including the development of an Indigenous Education Centre dedicated to Indigenous learning, culture and scholarly pursuit at Laurentian University. A full professor in her home department, the School of Indigenous Relations, she has developed expertise in Indigenous relations in the areas of health, education and research. Sheila is a member of the Teme-Augama Anishnabai.