A new initiative to remove barriers for Indigenous learners is expected to boost enrolment and help an estimated 800 students complete their programs of study.
The program, launching Wednesday at Vancouver Island University (VIU) and Yukon College, is the first of its kind in Canada. Enhanced support includes not only financial assistance with tuition, textbooks and living allowance, but also emotional, cultural and spiritual support by bringing Indigenous culture to the forefront, said Chris DaSilva, director of learning and leadership at the Rideau Hall Foundation, which is chaired by Canada's Governor-General and is helping to fund the program.
As an example, Mr. DaSilva noted that VIU employs elders who are paid at the same rate as tenured professors.
"[The schools] have demonstrated that they value the knowledge of Indigenous elders at the same level as PhD [holders]," Mr. DaSilva said. "Things like that – having an Indigenous cultural centre where they could go and meet and be in community with each other – students were telling us that mattered to them."
Other supports include tutors, outreach workers, bursaries, new online credit courses to better engage rural students and a program called "Community Cousins" that pays for current students to go into their communities to encourage others to enroll in postsecondary education.
It also places an emphasis on family: If there is a death back at home, for example, a school staffer will work with the student to explore travel options and ensure the student does not fall behind on studies.
The program is the product of a new partnership between the foundation and the Mastercard Foundation, which is investing $22.5-million in new funding. That will complement existing funds from government, the private sector and Indigenous communities to create a total program value of about $50-million.
The program was developed after a year of consultations with Indigenous youth, elders, postsecondary institutions and other stakeholders.
Emmy Manson, an Indigenous education navigator at VIU, said students' barriers can include leaving a small community and living on their own for the first time, the high cost of city living and trying to understand the often confusing university structure: course load requirements, prerequisites, credits.
"Many of our parents didn't go to university so we have limited mentorship at the community level," said Ms. Manson, who introduces herself to new students as the "auntie" on campus.
"We at VIU believe wrapping them in support and providing a stronger sense of belonging to university life, and also how to navigate the system of postsecondary, will support success when barriers surface."
Miranda Hopkins, 25, currently studies criminology at VIU and says she wouldn't be able to without the financial and emotional support from the program.
"Without this program, I would not have been able to afford my schooling, and being a single parent, the living allowance is an enormous help with the day-to-day expenses," Ms. Hopkins wrote in an e-mail. "The support I've gotten from some of the staff who work with the program has been amazing. They have helped me get all the right papers filled out, faxed/e-mailed to the right person, and been there for me as emotional support."
Catherine Joe, 33, is a mother of four, working toward a Bachelor of Education.
"This [program] is helping me to pursue my goal of becoming a teacher for my community and working on my stability for myself and my family," Ms. Joe wrote in an e-mail. "Without [it], it would not have been possible for me to finish my education."
This is the first Canadian investment for the Mastercard Foundation, which usually focuses on educational opportunities for young people in Africa.
Reeta Roy, the foundation's president and chief executive, attributed the timing to "the right convergence of things coming together," including the report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and July marking 150 years since Confederation.
"Education will be a tool of building better futures," Ms. Roy said. She added that there are plans to assess the program within two years, with the hope of eventually expanding to other institutions.
Mr. DaSilva called the program a "game-changer."
"This will shift the needle on the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous postsecondary education rates," he said.