Many aboriginal university students are the first in their family to attend and suffer from culture shock, says Irvin Hill, aboriginal cultural liaison officer at Carleton University. His job is to bridge aboriginal and university cultures.
“A lot of aboriginal students who come to university face obstacles once they get here,” he says.
“There’s a general lack of aboriginal culture within the institutions.”
That applies to curriculum and lifestyle, he says, noting many universities are actively working to change that. In the meantime, aboriginal students may need support to adjust.
“We’re here if they need any assistance, whether it’s speaking to someone who understands their culture, maybe bringing an elder in so they can talk to an elder,” he says. “We try to set up a community here so students will feel at home.”
Carleton offers a minor in aboriginal studies under its Canadian Studies program, a sign that Canada’s traditionally Euro-centric teaching of history is opening up. Schools such as Ontario’s Lakehead University, Alberta’s Red River College and Manitoba’s First Nations University also offer aboriginal-centric programs.
“The curriculum is changing, but there are still some schools, even some colleges and universities, that have the outdated curriculum and information that is not correct,” says Hill.
Wendy Drummond, special project coordinator at Royal Roads University in Victoria, says universities can play a vital role in “capacity building,” which can turn struggling communities around.
Royal Roads works with the Yekooche First Nation, a remote B.C. village of 120 people. After a series of treaty negotiations with the provincial and federal governments, it began taking a larger role in its own governance.
“The chief and council recognized that they were not ready to assume the governance role the treaty would require. They contacted Royal Roads University to … assist in the development of capacity to assume governance responsibilities,” explains Drummond.
The two groups developed the Learning Centre as a neutral space where Royal Roads could learn from the Yekooche community and vice versa.
“The Learning Centre … encouraged everyone’s participation equally — children, youth, adults and Elders,” says Drummond. “With each success they became a more invested member of the community.
With this investment came a sense of responsibility and commitment to enhance what they could offer to make their home, community and nation a better place.”
That in turn leads to better-run communities and more prosperous individuals, Drummond says.