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Stephen Toope is president of the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

As millions of Canadian young people gear up for a return to classrooms this fall, the "back to school" rallying cry is ubiquitous – in advertising, in media headlines and in household discussions across the country. Which professors, which courses, which degree, what to wear, where to be?

But for many people in Canada, especially those who work in education, other questions have begun to cut through the noise. Who is not back to school? Who and what is missing on our campuses?

These questions push to the fore this fall because of the groundbreaking work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) chaired by Justice Murray Sinclair, and informed by the testimony of over 6,000 witnesses whose bravery has succeeded in shaping a new, more honest narrative about Canada's entire educational system. The TRC report contains staggering, brutal and vitally important revelations.

"Back to school" just doesn't ring the same way now, nor should it.

Canadians have been called upon to act to contribute to a process of reconciliation with aboriginal peoples in Canada.

Increasing graduation rates for First Nations, Inuit and Metis students at the postsecondary level is an important part of the challenge. This is a human rights imperative, and – as census evidence shows – a "no-brainer" policy priority for governments and postsecondary institutions.

Under 50 per cent of aboriginal peoples aged 25 to 64 without high school education are employed. For aboriginal high school graduates, employment levels rise to 67 per cent, to 75 per cent for college graduates, and to 84 per cent for those with bachelor's degrees.

The employment rate for non-aboriginal Canadians with a bachelor's degree? 83 per cent. Gap, and case, closed.

Income results are similarly striking. Aboriginal peoples with a high school certificate earn on average $36,000 per year. Those holding a bachelor's degree average $55,000 a year, while those holding a master's degree average $67,000, rising to $71,000 for those with a PhD.

Put simply, postsecondary education (PSE) matters for addressing income inequality and fulfilling economic potential for aboriginal Canadians, making all of Canada better off.

But despite growing numbers of First Nations, Inuit and Metis university graduates, the gap with the rest of the population continues to grow. Only 8 per cent of aboriginal adults aged 25 to 64 have a university degree, while that figure is 23 per cent for the rest of the population.

We must build aboriginal students' high school graduation rates, ensuring effective financial, social and cultural supports at the elementary and secondary levels, as well as supports for the transition to PSE. The level of federal funding to support aboriginal students attending postsecondary institutions has increased only 2 per cent a year since 1996 – while tuition and the cost of living have been rising faster. And there are more aboriginal students to support because of growth in the aboriginal population. The cap on government resources must be lifted.

But the challenge and promise of reconciliation for the postsecondary sector is not just about enabling more aboriginal students to graduate. A comprehensive approach is required, including taking responsibility for past actions and fundamentally challenging our institutions and practices to create possibilities for healthier relationships.

Curricula, programs and the full range of university services must better promote and respect indigenous knowledge, experiences and world views so all students may learn and benefit from exchange and understanding. University faculties, administrative staff and governance structures must evolve to better support participation and leadership by aboriginal scholars and traditional knowledge holders.

Encouragingly, a growing number of universities and colleges across Canada are stepping up to the plate, making significant announcements, individually and as a sector, regarding core principles and commitments for action.

The University of Saskatchewan, for example, has committed to rigorous programs for aboriginal student success, inclusion of indigenous knowledge and experience in curricular offerings, and intercultural engagement among faculty, staff and students. The University of Manitoba has issued a formal apology to residential school survivors and established the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.

Fundamentally, as a sector, we must listen, talk, and listen some more. Dialogue and interaction between aboriginal and non-aboriginal students, faculty and community members must underpin the co-creation of new futures.

And it starts this fall, as we get back to school.

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