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Roberta Jamieson, president and CEO of Indspire, is seen with students at the 2019 Soaring: Indigenous Youth Empowerment Gathering. Indspire is a national Indigenous registered charity that invests in the education of First Nations, Inuit and Métis people.Sara Cornthwaite/Handout

This summer, despite the economic pall cast by the coronavirus pandemic, a national charity that provides scholarships to financially strapped Indigenous students has seen an unexpected influx of new individual donors.

Gratified but curious about the inspiration behind the donations, Roberta Jamieson, chief executive officer of Indspire, called a number of these first-time benefactors to ask what had motivated them to give at this time.

“With the focus of the anti-racism movement in the country, Canadians were looking for ways to make a concrete contribution to changing the circumstances [of disadvantaged populations], which led them to Indspire,” Ms. Jamieson said in an interview.

“I heard time and time again that they wanted to make a contribution to an area of obvious great need and great promise,” she added, saying her calls with benefactors emphasized that, for many young First Nations, Métis and Inuit people, education is a great leveller.

Since 2004, the charity has raised and distributed more than 42,500 scholarships and bursaries worth $132-million. New research by Indspire has found that 90 per cent of those scholarship and bursary recipients graduate and find work. Their ranks include doctors, lawyers, engineers, technology specialists, scientists, social workers and other professionals.

Similar, more recent initiatives are cropping up across the country as more organizations respond to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s call to develop and hire more Indigenous talent.

Since 2004, Indspire has raised and distributed more than 42,500 scholarships and bursaries worth $132-million.Handout

In Saskatchewan, potash producer the Mosaic Company is working with the Saskatoon-based Gabriel Dumont Institute of Native Studies and Applied Research to develop an internship program. The company hired nine Indigenous postsecondary students for summer work terms despite the challenges COVID-19 has posed to the business, and has set a target that 15 per cent of new hires in Saskatchewan be Indigenous people by 2025, Bruce Bodine, senior vice-president, North America, of the Tampa-based multinational said in an e-mail. “It’s simply the right thing to do, and it positions Mosaic and the communities we live and work in for long-term success.”

In receiving support from organizations such as Indspire and other sponsors, Ryan Danroth, a family practice resident in Nanaimo, B.C., feels privileged to be in a position to care for others and grateful for the support he received along the way. “I can’t stress enough how much monetary contributions help when you don’t have financial support from anywhere else,” says Dr. Danroth, whose professional interests include early disease prevention, prison health and addiction.

His childhood dream growing up on the K’omoks First Nation on Vancouver Island was to become a doctor. By Grade 9, the boy who loved science dropped out of school to help his family pay the rent. After spending his teen years working as a labourer and cook, Dr. Danroth enrolled in an adult education program at North Island College to earn his high-school diploma, graduating with an academic excellence award and no expectation of going to university. At the insistence of a teacher, however, he applied for the molecular biology and biochemistry program at Simon Fraser University.

The next hurdle was money. Dr. Danroth’s family and friends contributed what they could – “$20 here, $30 there” – and the North Island College award covered application costs. Financial assistance from Indspire went toward securing a residence room, and an entrance scholarship from SFU helped with first-year tuition. By cobbling together various scholarships and working in the HIV research lab at SFU, Dr. Danroth graduated with the marks and experience to be accepted into the University of British Columbia’s medical school. He graduated this past spring.

Ms. Jamieson said she hears variations of Dr. Danroth’s story all the time from Indspire recipients, who leave school with a strong desire to “give back.”

Vayda Kaviok, a second-year nursing student at Nunavut Arctic College in Iqaluit, aims eventually to become a psychiatric nurse. Fluent in Inuktitut, she hopes to help people with mental-health issues who struggle to communicate in English. Among other things, the financial support from Indspire enabled her to buy a stethoscope and scrubs.

The financial assistance has enabled Tracie Léost, a fourth-year social work student at the University of Regina, to devote more time to studies and advocacy work for Indigenous rights. As a volunteer sports coach for inner-city Indigenous children in Regina, the young Métis woman says she has “seen the downstream effects of oppressive policies and legislation.” She says she hopes to study law with a view to shaping constructive change.

The social benefits of advanced education and greater employment opportunities for Indigenous people are obvious, Ms. Jamieson said. But corporate donors including Suncor Energy Inc., consulting engineering firm Hatch Ltd. and BMO Capital Markets also see the business case. Young Indigenous people are Canada’s fastest-growing demographic and many employers recognize that it’s in their long-term interests to develop this talent pool through scholarships and employment opportunities.

Still, there is not nearly enough support, Canada-wide, for all of the Indigenous students able and willing to pursue postsecondary studies and perform meaningful work, Ms. Jamieson said. “There’s great promise, great potential and tremendous need.”

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