Q&A with University of Regina president and vice-chancellor Dr. Vianne Timmons
You are frequently speaking out about equality, diversity and inclusion at Canadian universities. Why is this important to you?
I think it is critical that universities pay significant attention to equality, diversity and inclusion. Our student population needs to be representative of [the demographic makeup of] our communities. We haven’t achieved this yet. For example, less than 10 per cent of Indigenous people between the ages of 25 and 64 have a university degree, compared to the national average of 26 per cent. And people with disabilities are often underemployed or unemployed. Access to education and employment opportunities is important for all Canadians and especially marginalized people – it is a major social and economic issue for our country.
Have you seen any progress in the representation of Indigenous people in universities?
There has been a strong focus on Indigenization at Canadian universities, especially since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) issued its calls to action. This is not only the right thing to do – it is also absolutely critical for the health of our communities and society. Young Indigenous people are the fastest-growing demographic in Canada. When we increase opportunities for Indigenous youth and partner with Indigenous leaders, we can really transform this country.
The number of Indigenous students across Canada is growing. At the University of Regina, for example, 13 per cent of our student population now self-declare as Indigenous – that number almost mirrors the Regina population. I’m excited that the TRC’s recommendations are being translated into actions that are often led by universities.
Can you give an example of the challenges Indigenous students face?
When Indigenous students from Canada’s North come to the University of Regina, for example, they often leave small communities, where they have family and a support network. They enter a university with over 15,000 students, a population that is bigger than their community. Travelling back and forth is expensive, and many students have children and need to find housing and daycare.
I recently mentored a young woman from Nunavut, who came to do her masters in education. She has four children, who needed to get settled and attend schools. She has now finished her degree and I’m very proud of her. I look at the complicated lives of so many of our students and I’m in awe of how hard they work.
Is there an example of an initiative to support Indigenous students that works particularly well?
We have a range of support systems in place. The nitôncipâmin omâ student success program (OMA), for example, helps Indigenous students transition from grade 12 through the first year of university, where they work with facilitators on things like completing assignments or conducting library research related to assignments. OMA is now in its ninth year and has a 75 per cent success rate for students going from first to second year.
What other measures can lower barriers for participation?
We help students apply for university and access scholarships and support. We also have increased the resources for providing emergency funding assistance to students whose continued education at the University of Regina is at risk due to unexpected financial pressures. We have centres for Indigenous students, students with disabilities and international students. We also put a lot of resources into services for students experiencing mental health challenges. The resources and services for supporting students with unique needs have increased significantly.
What is the outcome of implementing these supports?
When I went to university in the ’70s, university students were a very homogeneous group. There was virtually no support for people with disabilities and no discussion about including Indigenous people. But things have changed significantly. When you walk along the halls of most universities, you see people from diverse cultural backgrounds, including Indigenous students, and students with different needs; for example, with seeing-eye dogs and wheelchairs. This is exciting. But we also need to keep the conversation going; for example, about gender equality where we haven’t closed the gap.
Produced by Randall Anthony Communications. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved in its creation.