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aboriginal issues

This rendering shows the plan for UBC’s Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre.

Before graduating, U of W students must take one indigenous studies course; at other campuses new learning spaces will recognize aboriginal people and their history.

Kevin Settee works around the clock. The 25-year-old is doing a double major in urban studies and geography at the University of Winnipeg, and he just became president of the school's students' association.

As an Anishinaabe and Cree person himself, Mr. Settee has been active in working with administration to bring more indigenous curriculum to his university. Last year marked major headway at U of W when a student-led motion passed, mandating that each student take one indigenous studies course before graduating.

"A lot of education systems have not included us respectfully," Mr. Settee says. "We want to challenge the status quo."

Set to begin in the fall, required courses are initiatives to "indigenize" the campuses.

These are a few of many projects universities have put in place to respond to the release of 90-plus calls-to-action by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Canada (TRC) in June 2015, which highlighted the need to get more indigenous people into postsecondary education.

Indigenization projects range from changes to curriculum, increased indigenous faculty and instructor positions, and transformed or new learning spaces.

For instance, at Lakehead University, indigenous content has been added to existing courses.

And the University of British Columbia's Vancouver campus is building its own indigenouscentred space, similar to a project at the University of Saskatchewan and a proposed space at the University of Western Ontario.

Construction on UBC's Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre is set to begin soon. It will be a new building, designed to foster memory, recognition, and dialogue about indigenous people and their histories.

It will house TRC documents in multimedia forms and be a visiting place for students, their classes and community members.

"To have something that clearly announces not only that there is aboriginal history, but that it matters and that there is lots of information available to help people understand it, really changes the landscape of how we think about our country's history," says Linc Kesler, director of the First Nations House of Learning at UBC and co-ordinator of the project.

Will this or any of the indigenization initiatives taking place across the country get more indigenous people enrolling? Mr. Settee says it's a step in the right direction, but no effort will work on its own.

"It goes beyond the physical spaces and how things look," he says.

"It's a combination of curriculum, teaching methods, where the courses are located, and how genuine the administration is in terms of indigenization. We need to think critically about what indigenization really means."

Getting indigenous people into school could bring massive benefits, not just for indigenous people themselves but for the economy as well. Research by Matthew Calver at the Centre for the Study of Living Standards showed that "closing the education gap" that exists between indigenous and non-indigenous people between 2011 and 2031 could bring as much as $261-billion (in 2010 dollars) to the Canadian economy.

"It's not just about improving things for aboriginal people. It's also about a means to generate economic growth for Canada as a whole. It's one obvious opportunity," Mr. Calver says.

He acknowledges the projection is "aspirational." According to the 2011 National Household Survey, the rate of indigenous employment was 13 percentage points lower than the rate of employment within the non-indigenous population. And 29 per cent of the indigenous population aged 25 to 64 have no certificate, diploma or degree, compared with 12 per cent of the non-indigenous population of the same age, according to Statistics Canada.

But Jason Bone, a graduate student at the University of Manitoba, is critical of the use of measurements that cite economic benefits to closing the education gap for indigenous people. They don't equate to indigenous success or point to reconciliation, he says, but actually support the status quo.

"Whose vision of economic benefit do we have in mind here?" he asks.

"It feels an awful lot like we're still protecting the interests of those who have benefited from the way things have been for the longest time, and we're not taking seriously those that are coming behind us – our children, our grandchildren. What are we going to leave for them?"

Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect that Lakehead University does not require students to take an indigenous studies course, but has rather added indigenous content to existing courses.