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A proud Anishinaabe born Desmand King feels right at home at the British Columbia Institute of Technology.Alia Youssef/ALIA YOUSSEF/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

A proud Anishinaabe born in Sudbury, Ont., 42-year-old Desmand King feels right at home at the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT), among the Canadian polytechnic institutes with Indigenous-focused programs and initiatives.

King earned an applied software developer certificate in 2019 at BCIT’s downtown Vancouver campus. In September, after the COVID-19 pandemic stalled his goal to make it big in the video-game industry, he entered the school’s two-year, full-time digital design and development diploma program.

He’s among the 1,700 Indigenous students at BCIT, from a total of about 18,000 full-time and 30,000 part-time students at five campuses. In return for his positive experiences at BCIT, he gives back, including as one of the school’s three Indigenous Peer Champions, who mentor other students.

“Other than Indigenous services, BCIT has lots of great services – medical, counselling, there’s a gym on campus. I’ll be an ear for [my mentee], see if he needs any resources and let him know how he can access services he may not know the school provides,” he says.

As a status member of Aundeck Omni Kaning, an Ojibway First Nation on Ontario’s Manitoulin Island, King’s tuition and some living costs are paid for by his band. For Indigenous students needing financial aid, BCIT and other schools offer a range of scholarships, bursaries, and other funding.

King is especially fond of BCIT’s Indigenous Gathering Place, known as Mi Chap Tukw, which means “a home away from home.” Opened in 2011 on the Burnaby campus, the facility features a kitchen, computer lounge, common study area, as well as cultural ceremonies and educational activities.

“I have met so many great people there that normally I wouldn’t have had a chance to meet just walking around on campus on my own,” King says. “You can have lunch, talk to program advisers, other students, elders who come in there, and just go in there and decompress for an hour, and go back and refresh.”

For BCIT and other schools, their Indigenous initiatives are an integral part of diversity and inclusion efforts and began long before Canada marked its first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on Sept. 30, 2021.

In December, 2014, Colleges and Institutes Canada (CICan), which represents 139 publicly supported schools including cégeps and universities with a college mandate, launched an Indigenous Education Protocol, a visionary guide on how to better serve Indigenous Peoples.

The protocol is based on seven principles, which include making Indigenous education a priority, ensuring governance structures recognize and respect Indigenous Peoples, and incorporating their traditions in curriculum and learning approaches.

Denise Amyot, CICan’s president and chief executive officer based in Ottawa, says colleges “play a critical role in empowering Indigenous people and communities,” especially given 95 per cent of Canadians and 86 per cent of Indigenous individuals live within 50 kilometres of one of its member schools.

BCIT is among 69 schools that have signed on to protocol. “We work hard to recognize that, yes, we have an Indigenous initiatives department, but it takes all of us at BCIT to support all of our students,” says Kory Wilson, BCIT’s executive director, Indigenous Initiatives and Partnerships, since 2016. “Sometimes Indigenous students have particular needs and certain types of support, but we try to work as a team to support the students and see them through graduation.”

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King says he’s seen first-hand the benefits of including everyone in Indigenous efforts.Alia Youssef/ALIA YOUSSEF/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

A roster of six to eight elders contribute to the BCIT community in their own way, including giving blessings and sharing knowledge. During the pandemic, one elder did a film on how to make bannock (a traditional bread made by North American First Nations people), Wilson says. All employees, staff, students, and anyone outside the BCIT community can take part in a free online Indigenous awareness course, just one of the many programs and initiatives.

“These efforts are ones that must happen and must occur. The reality is Indigenous people are still lagging behind, not just in terms of educational achievement and graduation from high school, let alone post-secondary,” says Wilson, who is a member of the We Wai Kai First Nation on B.C.’s Quadra Island, and is Musgamagw Tsawataineuk and Laich-Kwil-Tach.

This past spring, Humber College, where about 1,500 of its 50,000 students are Indigenous, received CICan’s gold award of excellence. The Toronto school holds cultural events, powwows, and other activities to “support spiritual, emotional, mental and physical wellness,” and emphasizes “Naawsidoong Mino Nawendiwin: building good relationships and furthering truth and reconciliation efforts,” CICan says.

In 2016, Humber formed a cultural exchange program with Otago Polytechnic in New Zealand that involves both Indigenous and non-Indigenous staff and students.

“Individuals from Otago come to Canada and learn from us, and then we send staff and students there. A big focus is land-based education,” says Jason Seright, dean of Indigenous education and engagement at Humber, about the six-week credit course.

“A lot of what we get now is from books and classrooms ... but the practical side is learning from the land about how to live and survive,” Seright says. “As an example, I think about when a young person goes out hunting, what’s the process in that, what’s the time of the year and day, what type of tracking skills and preparation are needed. And this [exchange] experience will transfer into other areas as well, like a professional cooking program if you’re harvesting plants from the land.”

Seright is Métis of Cree and Dene ancestry, and originally from Buffalo Narrows and Île-à-la-Crosse in northern Saskatchewan. He joined Humber in March 2020, and unfortunately the pandemic led to the program with Otago going virtual last year. The goal is for about 25 people to participate in the travel exchange in the summer of 2022.

He says schools need to allocate resources to develop and establish Indigenous strategies. For example, Humber is expanding its Indigenous staff, he adds. And about 800 of the 2,800 staff have completed Indigenous cultural awareness training, with the goal of everyone completing it by 2023.

It’s key that diversity and inclusion efforts benefit campuses and communities because “the Indigenous world is a holistic one where everybody is included,” adds Seright.

King, for one, says he’s seen first-hand the benefits of including everyone in Indigenous efforts.

“Whatever comes out of the college experience, I’m grateful for every day that I’m here at BCIT – I’m having a blast and love it.”