It was supposed to be a golden ticket: Just more than one year ago, three first nations students from British Columbia were offered full scholarships, worth $80,000 over two years, to attend a prestigious boarding school on Vancouver Island.
Pearson College is a United World College and an International Baccalaureate school, one of the few places in Canada where U.S. Ivy League universities actively recruit, graduates collect millions of dollars in university scholarships each year and often go on to work at the United Nations.
All 160 students attend on scholarship. In the summer of 2010, B.C.'s Ministry of Advanced Education made six new scholarships available, earmarked specifically for first nations students. The school scrambled to fill the spots, and admitted three first nations students from B.C. that fall.
But in a school filled with students from 90 countries these Canadians stood out. They were bright and determined, but also far behind their cohorts academically.
Some had never done homework or held a textbook. They'd attended schools where classes were often cancelled because the pipes had frozen, or the power was out.
They were surrounded by teen pregnancy, drug abuse and suicide.
So Pearson, with its marine research island, telescope observatory and culture of over-achievement, was a shock.
When one of the students, a smart and popular boy from a reserve in northern B.C., dropped out this fall, it was an eye-opener for Pearson's director, David Hawley. While the school provides special support for students from war-torn countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq, it never occurred to him that students from Canada, home to one of the world's top-ranked education systems, would need the same consideration. He and his staff are now investigating whether they can provide first nations students with the same supports they provide international refugees.
"I can't believe we're exploring that," Mr. Hawley said. "There's certainly a major unresolved issue here for Canadian education."
Ottawa took a hard look at aboriginal education this week when a federally appointed panel released a scathing report on the state of first nations schools. Pearson has seen first-hand that good intentions alone aren't enough to reconcile the two stark realities that exist within Canadian education – one world-leading, one far behind.
The school's remaining aboriginal students formed a support group this year, and meet every Tuesday at the home of Susan Duffell-Warthe, the soft-spoken school nurse, to talk about the issues facing their home communities, the guilt they feel for being away, and the pressure they're under at Pearson.
Many are working with tutors, and studying through the night to make up for the gaps in their education.
"There's pressure to succeed as an aboriginal student because there's a lot of failure and you don't want to be another failure," said Jessica Penney, a 16-year-old Inuit student from Nunavut. "You want to be successful and make a change."
Growing up in Iqaluit, Jessica never had textbooks. She and her classmates made do with photocopies, and classes were sometimes cancelled when the building's pipes had frozen. She had peers who struggled with drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, depression and suicide.
When she arrived at Pearson, with its sprawling moss-covered campus, heated pool and floating marine biology classroom, the 16-year-old Inuit student felt like she'd landed on another planet. She and the students struggle to explain Pearson to their families, and are reluctant to show any sign of failure.
"I can't ever say when things are going wrong because everyone sacrificed so much for me to be here," said Brittany Hathaway, an 18-year-old Métis student from Nanaimo, B.C., whose parents struggled to pay for piano lessons and soccer leagues when she was younger.
She said many of her international classmates expect that because she grew up in Canada, she had a typical North American childhood.
"There are assumptions, like that I've skied before," she said. "My family could never afford that."
The native Canadian students have teamed up with Avijâja Jepson, an 18-year-old Inuit student from Greenland, to hold Pearson's first ever American Aboriginal Special Topics Day this Thursday. B.C.'s Lieutenant-Governor, Steven Point, a former elected chief of the Skowkale First Nation, will be the keynote speaker; the aboriginal students will be leading workshops.
"It's like we've taken back some pride in our culture," said Brittany.
Late Friday, a spokesman for B.C.'s Ministry of Advanced Education wrote in an e-mail to The Globe that "no future funding decision" had been made regarding Pearson's first nations-specific scholarships.
In hopes that they do make more scholarships available, Mr. Hawley is investigating a new recruitment system, and whether the school could offer summer boarding like it has done in the past with refugee students who don't have a stable home to return to.
"We never want to lose another aboriginal student again," he said.