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Juliette Wemigwans, left, is a student enrolled in McMaster’s Indigenous Undergraduate Summer Research Scholars program.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

An Ontario university has launched a new program to increase the number of indigenous students in Canadian graduate schools – historically an area of study where they are underrepresented.

When McMaster University selected recipients for a scholarship created for aboriginal students in 2010, committee members noticed there were few candidates to choose from. That realization became the catalyst for a program taking place at the university this summer.

The Indigenous Undergraduate Summer Research Scholars program started on July 2 when 14 undergraduate students from across Ontario arrived on campus.

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Among them was Juliette Wemigwans, a mother of five, who shyly admitted to being the "oldest student here."

"I never, ever, ever thought in my life I would go to university – ever," said the Odawa woman, who is from the Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve in Ontario.

Not only did she proceed to do just that – Ms. Wemigwans is entering her fourth year of sociology at Ontario's Algoma University in the fall – but thanks to the McMaster program she is considering graduate school, too.

"The people that we've had talk to us about graduate studies have made it seem relatable, achievable," said participant George Doxtater, 23.

Mr. Doxtater is from Six Nations of the Grand River, a community 25 kilometres southwest of Hamilton, and is working on an undergraduate degree in linguistics at McMaster.

"You know when you see something on a pedestal and you can't attain it?" he asked. "[Those involved in the program] showed us there's a ladder here and you can walk up there."

The gap between the number of indigenous people earning university degrees and the rest of the population is significant. Universities Canada – which represents 97 public and private universities and university degree-level colleges – notes in a June, 2015, report that 9.8 per cent of indigenous people in Canada have a university degree, compared with 26.5 per cent of non-indigenous people.

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Data on graduate students is harder to come by. Statistics Canada's 2011 national household survey indicated that 1.46 per cent of aboriginal persons aged 25 to 64 received a masters' degree, compared with 5.24 per cent among the non-indigenous population.

Allison Sekuler, acting vice-president of research and psychology professor at McMaster, was inspired to create the program after hearing about a similar one in the United States. She said when aboriginals do access postsecondary education, it can be in a "roundabout," or "circuitous," way.

That could mean entering university later in life, or obtaining a PhD as a single mom, Dr. Sekuler said.

And there are many factors as to why, but most relate to coming from families with members – parents, particularly – who are not educated.

"There is a feeling of isolation, and it leads to this sense of questioning. An imposter syndrome, almost," she said.

Standing in her lab, Dr. Sekuler explained that indigenous students' presence on campus is equally beneficial to the university and the indigenous community.

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"We'll start to see where some of these disconnects are," she said. "We don't even think about some of the obstacles we've put in the way of indigenous students. If you don't come from the background, you don't see it."

To turn her idea into a reality, Dr. Sekuler needed someone who came from the background. That's when Bernice Downey, a medical anthropologist with Oji-Cree and Celtic heritage, was hired to co-ordinate the Indigenous Undergraduate Summer Research Scholars program.

After McMaster University's provost council's office provided $368,000 in funding for two years through the Strategic Alignment Priorities fund, Dr. Downey got to work.

She collaborated with McMaster University's Indigenous Studies program, which is partnering the project, and broader indigenous communities to plan for the first summer. Now, four indigenous graduate student mentors, 12 faculty supervisors and five indigenous scholars are teaching the undergrads about graduate student life and studies.

The program comes less than two months after Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission released 94 calls to action in June, seven devoted to improving education.

"The TRC process and report gives us that opportunity to look at, 'Okay, what's the strategic vision?'" Dr. Downey said. "I'm sure other institutions are doing innovative work too, but this is an example of something that can lead to longer-term change."

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For McMaster University, it is already on the horizon: In the fall, three indigenous undergraduate students from the summer program will enter the institution as graduate students.

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