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Province aims to attract more aboriginal students

Feb 03 2012

Financial help for aboriginal students and extra assistance for those taking teacher training are key elements of a wide-ranging provincial plan to encourage more First Nations students to enrol in colleges and universities.

The draft strategy will be unveiled today at an aboriginal post-secondary education forum in Vancouver and is likely to go to government for consideration this spring.

The young, dynamic and growing aboriginal population can provide part of the solution to B.C.'s predicted labour shortage provided ways can be found to encourage more students into post-secondary education, Advanced Education Minister Naomi Yamamoto said in an interview.

"Support for the post-secondary education of the fastest-growing segment of the population is a wise investment in B.C.'s future," says the draft policy framework.

Financial hardship, the need for cultural support - especially for students from rural reserves or tiny communities - and lack of aboriginal role models are among reasons that the number of First Nations post-secondary students lag behind non-aboriginals, Yamamoto said.

Scholarships are already provided, through a $10-million endowment, to aboriginal students and the province wants the federal government to remove the two per cent cap on spending increases for aboriginal post-secondary education that has been in place since 1997, Yamamoto said.

"We're also looking at providing scholarships for students that want to enter education," she said.

"Role-modelling is very important and to have more aboriginal teachers in the system would help engage more aboriginal students."

Despite efforts to build aboriginal gathering places at colleges and universities and introduce courses with First Nations components, Grade 12 graduation and post-secondary qualifications remain well below non-aboriginal students.

Last year, 51 per cent of aboriginal students graduated from high school within six years of entering Grade 8 compared with 82 per cent of non-aboriginal learners.

Although there has been a 17 per cent increase in aboriginal students entering post-secondary education since 2007, only seven per cent of the First Nations population acquire university degrees or certificates compared with 26 per cent of the non-aboriginal population.

Twenty-three per cent have college certificates, compared with 26 per cent of the non-aboriginal population.

"But more and more are interested in trades training," Yamamoto said.

"We have shortages in quite a few of those areas in the work force, so that's good," she said.

Chief Bob Chamberlin, Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs vice-president, who will take part in the forum, said funding remains the biggest systemic barrier to First Nations students attending university or college.

Much of the responsibility for that lies with the federal government and the two per cent cap must go, especially with the population of young aboriginals growing at a much faster rate than non-aboriginals, Chamberlin said.

"It makes no sense. It needs a substantial injection of cash," he said. "Government knows we are a growing population and the need is going to be greater."

Young people realize that economic opportunities lie in post-secondary education, but support of elders and a familiar place to gather are key when students move from tiny, tight-knit, communities, Chamberlin said.

"We are seeing the need for post-secondary education and capacity building in the more isolated regions and we need proper and adequate supports," he said.

"We want to try and recreate that safety net they had in the communities."

However, the grinding poverty seen on many reserves adversely affects the ability of young people to progress to post-secondary education, Chamberlin said.

It is hard to convince people struggling with inadequate housing, health problems and lack of nutritious food that the priority should be getting into university, he said.

The answer is to look at the bigger picture and give First Nations a share of resource revenues from traditional territories, he said.

"Revenue sharing would make sure we are involved in the economy so we can provide for our community," he said.

jlavoie@timescolonist.com

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