Nunavut-born Laura Arngna'naaq, possibly the only Inuk chartered accountant in Canada, has received numerous scholarships for her academic and leadership accomplishments over the past five years.
The financial aid helped her defray education costs – she is still paying off debts – that came with earning an undergraduate degree in business from Trent University, a master of management and professional accounting from the University of Toronto and professional designation as a chartered accountant.
"It means a lot to me," says Ms. Arngna'naaq, who has received assistance from Indspire, an indigenous-led national education charity, and corporate donors. "There are a lot of barriers with attending postsecondary education, especially as an Inuk," she says, including finances, distance from home and cultural isolation.
The support for Ms. Arngna'naaq signals growing interest by corporate and private donors in tackling some of the financial challenges that have prevented First Nation, Métis and Inuit students from completing postsecondary education. Just 10 per cent of indigenous youth earn university degrees, compared to 27 per cent of other students in Canada, according to Statistics Canada.
In 2014, with corporate donations fuelled by a $10-million matching grant from the federal government, Indspire provided merit-based scholarships and need-based bursaries to 493 business students at colleges and universities, up from 120 students in 2012-13.
"This [indigenous youth cohort] is the fastest growing demographic group and the least likely to get out of high school," says Roberta Jamieson, president and chief executive officer of Indspire. "If we are going to grow the Canadian economy, we need to find a way to engage this part of Canada."
Indspire has handed out $80-million in scholarships and bursaries since 1985, with 93 per cent of recipients graduating from college or university and 82 per cent employed full-time.
But need still outstrips donations.
"We are just scratching the surface," says Ms. Jamieson, citing a shortage of funded bursaries. "Last year, we were only able to meet 16 per cent of the needs of students who came to us."
Whether working with Indspire or business schools, corporate donors say that financial barriers to education fits with their corporate goals on diversity.
"We know across all broadcasters in Canada that it [the aboriginal population] is an underrepresented category that we are all looking to grow," says Barbara Williams, president of Shaw Media, a long-time broadcaster of Indspire's annual awards.
Over the next three years, Shaw has committed $100,000 annually for an Indspire scholarship and bursary program. Designated students receive financial help throughout their postsecondary studies and are eligible for paid internships and potential employment with Shaw.
"We know there is a business case here," says Ms. Williams. "It's been proven over and over again that if businesses are more reflective, if they have more diversity, if there is a greater range of voices at the table, then the business outcomes improve."
Her view is shared by Jacques Fleurant, chief financial officer of HSBC Bank Canada, which has committed $300,000 over 2014-17 (through Indspire) to provide awards of $3,000 each to188 undergraduate business students across Canada.
"Our most important asset is our employees," says Mr. Fleurant, whose bank also sponsors an internship program for indigenous business undergraduates to pursue a banking career. "We need to invest in building the talent pipeline."
Meanwhile, some business school alumni are investing in aboriginal education, too.
Warren Spitz, an alumni of the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia, and his family have pledged $1-million over seven years for fellowships, worth $10,000 each, for aboriginal women in Canada to pursue an undergraduate business degree at the school.
"We want to engage as many First Nation as we can to see how we can inspire some young women who might not see this [business education studies] as a logical pathway for them when they are in Grade 10 or 12," says Mr. Spitz, who developed the fellowship in close consultation with First Nation leaders.
Mr. Spitz, who worked in coastal First Nation communities in his youth, credits his daughter Kelsey Spitz for recommending a female-focused award. At the discretion of Sauder, the fellows can receive help for tutoring, childcare and housing, all potential barriers to completing of a degree.
In October, a group of colleges and universities met at Nova Scotia's Cape Breton University to expand financial assistance for indigenous students pursuing postsecondary business programs.
"There has been some attention paid to scholarships, but not nearly enough," says Keith Brown, vice-president of international and aboriginal affairs at CBU and current holder of the Purdy Crawford Chair in Aboriginal Business Studies. "People at the table [said] they had no support for bursaries and [stated] their biggest need was for bursaries for aboriginal students."
Dr. Brown says there is an erroneously held view that indigenous students receive free postsecondary education. With growth in federal education funds to bands capped at 2 per cent since the mid-1990s, he says, "the gap continues to widen between the number of students who want to go [to postsecondary] and those who have the financial ability to do it."
At the University of Manitoba, the Asper School of Business has raised funds from donors while expanding mentoring and other resources to support First Nation, Métis and Inuit students.
"We want to increase our numbers," says dean Michael Benarroch, whose school (like others) is underrepresented in indigenous students. "We want to make sure that the students who come to the school have the supports they need to graduate and be really successful."
Since 2013, the school has raised $500,000 for undergraduate awards through its Aboriginal Business Education Partners program, which provides support to indigenous students. In addition, the school holds an annual dinner honouring aboriginal business leaders, raising $20,000 this year for scholarships and bursaries.
This fall, Asper alumna Ian Robertson and his partner Lisa Lewis, of Ojibway heritage, pledged a $25,000 scholarship in their names for an indigenous student pursuing an MBA at the school.
Ms. Arnga'naaq, who will receive a $10,000 Indspire youth award next February, sums up the challenge succinctly: "Education is expensive."