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Hochelaga Rock on the McGill University campus in Montreal.

Vincent Allaire/McGill University

Hochelaga Rock, a modest monument to the Iroquois village that once stood where McGill University is now located, took on a new meaning recently when students urged the university to move it to a more prominent location. With fewer than 200 aboriginal students enrolled among a student body of about 36,000, the little-noticed rock, in its out-of-the-way location, came to signify the underrepresentation of aboriginal students and faculty at McGill.

"It's very colonial, the language they use. 'The cream of the cream'," says Paige Isaac, co-ordinator of First Peoples' House at McGill and a former student. "Excellence is what they praise here at McGill. Not to say that indigenous students aren't excellent, but it's intimidating."

Not that McGill is alone. Fewer than 10 per cent of aboriginal Canadians between 25 and 64 have a university degree, compared to roughly a quarter of non-aboriginals. While the number of aboriginal people with degrees has nearly doubled over the past 10 years, the attainment rate among other Canadians increased at a faster rate, meaning the gap continues to widen.

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This challenge recently prompted Universities Canada, the advocacy organization representing Canadian universities, to adopt 13 strategies for closing the gap at its member schools, which range from incorporating indigenous culture and history into curricula to fostering dialogue about reconciliation.

For University of Saskatchewan student Jack Saddleback, finding a supportive community of aboriginal students through the Aboriginal Student Achievement Program was essential to his success. "I was scared out of my brain," recalls Mr. Saddleback, who failed his first year. "But when you have a community that supports you, it catapults you into places you never could have imagined." He is now president of the University of Saskatchewan Students' Union. "I never thought I would be in this chair."

Yet Mr. Saddleback acknowledges that it was easier for him to aspire to higher education, because his father and stepmother both went to university. He believes the lack of aboriginal people in positions of leadership at universities makes its less likely for aboriginal youth to imagine themselves there. "We don't have a lot of success stories coming out. Aboriginal people don't see themselves reflected in the society," he said.

The quality of education on reserves is also a barrier, he says. "Some of my cousins who went to school on the reserve didn't even know how to write an essay." Mr. Saddleback, who spent most of his high-school years in Calgary, also struggled in a system that did not seem designed for him. "In my last year of high school I had to make a choice between native studies and Canadian history." He did not graduate until his 20s, making him not uncommon, according to government statistics on aboriginal high-school completion rates.

Programs designed to get aboriginal students in the door can help. For Ashley Richards, a commerce student at the University of Manitoba, that program was through the Asper School of Business. She received assistance getting through the admissions process and significant financial aid. Having spent several of her teenaged years homeless, this support was key. "If I had never gotten in touch with the [Asper] program, I wouldn't be where I am today," she says. "It was really hard for me to finish high school because everything was so tumultuous."

With between 5 and 10 per cent of their students being aboriginal, universities in the prairies seem to be doing better at first blush. (Brandon University and the University of Winnipeg are above 10 per cent.) But this is partly driven by demographics. In Manitoba and Saskatchewan, one quarter of the population under 20 is aboriginal; that figure in Quebec and Ontario is between 2 and 4 per cent, according to a 2011 report by Universities Canada (formerly the AUCC).

Still, there is room for improvement. For instance, less than 2 per cent of the student body is aboriginal at the University of British Columbia, University of Toronto and McGill University.

While Mr. Saddleback acknowledges all the progress his university has made, he admits there are still challenges. "It's baffling that this is seen as an extra," he said, referencing the move to incorporate indigenous perspectives into mainstream curricula. "Aboriginal people have been here for ages; we're not extracurricular."

More stories from the Canadian University Report

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