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Rx for first nation education: talk, time and trust

Nipissing University is located on traditional territory of Nipissing First Nation.

Recent events have attracted broad attention to first nations, underscoring once again the pressing need for dialogue and relationship building. There are, however, conversations which for many years have occured far from the media spotlight, yielding community-based visions of the way forward.

Nipissing University, established as an affiliate of Laurentian University in 1967, received its charter as an independent university in 1992. Today a small, predominantly undergraduate institution with a reputation for excellence in teacher education, arts, science, business and nursing, Nipissing is unique by virtue of its history, location and relationships with first nations peoples and communities.

The university is located on the traditional territory of the Nipissing First Nation, and some of its property abuts the reserve. Given this proximity of land and people, and the sharing of an environment, an active relationship makes imminent sense. Surrounding the university are much-used trails that link the two communities and provide access to the beautiful falls nearby. It is thus both metaphorically and literally the case that Nipissing First Nation and Nipissing University share a common path.

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Consultation is a word that can mean many things. Too often, it means arriving to a community with a prefabricated plan and a public relations campaign to sell it. In contrast, our relationship with first nations spans decades. Discussions with first nations first took place in 1980, when the former dean of education, Alan Johnson, struck an informal roundtable. He believed firmly in creating programs that were community responsive and relevant, and those early discussions yielded several programs for aboriginal learners which continue to this day. Twelve years later, the relationship became formal when the Nipissing University Aboriginal Council on Education – or NUACE – was officially established.

Consultation for NUACE designates an approach which begins by asking, "What are your education needs?" We shape the relationship in conformity with the community's values and aspirations, taking the meaningful steps that demonstrate we have listened.

This approach requires time and energy, but in return for these commitments both the university and the communities it serves have been repaid in the currency of improved programming and community engagement. Our discussions with aboriginal students have provided us a clear picture of the educational challenges ahead. These include raising the graduation rates from high school, meeting the growing human resource demands of both aboriginal and non-aboriginal governments and businesses, and serving the increasing numbers of students with special needs (for example single mothers, who face particular barriers including financial challenges and a lack of child support).

At the core of NUACE's mission is a commitment to the long-term reciprocal relationships with aboriginal communities. These have fostered trust and informed mutual action on community-driven initiatives. The members of NUACE are appointed by communities and organizations such as Nipissing, Eagle Village, Timiskaming and Whitefish Lake First Nations. These members provide a direct human link between the university and their respective members through consultation on a wide range of topics and strategic concerns. Their role is to advise the university on matters affecting aboriginal learners, including the mentorship programs that employ undergraduate students and encourage high-school students to pursue postsecondary studies.

Looking back, we can see that a flexible community-driven approach has made it possible for Nipissing University to customize its services and strategies and thereby to offer an accessible, supportive learning environment. Nipissing's programs cannot, and should not, be replicated in the mechanical manner of a cookie cutter: The lesson here is that a sound and successful aboriginal education strategy must issue from the hard work of building relationships based in listening, observance of cultural protocols and a shared vision.

A university education parts the mental curtain to reveal a wider vision of the world and its bright possibilities. Together, aboriginal people and Nipissing University share a commitment to clearing pathways into this world of opportunity, especially for prospective students who may be the first among their family to take a university degree program.

Dr. Mike DeGagné is president and vice-chancellor of Nipissing University. Laurie McLaren is Executive Director of Nipissing University's Office of Aboriginal Initiatives.

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