"Oh God! Like the thunderbird of old I shall rise again out of the sea; I shall grab the instruments of the white man's success ―his education, his skills ― and with these new tools I shall build my race into the proudest segment of your society."

-The great Chief Dan George, in his famous 1967 address, Lament for Confederation

Looking back on the inspiring words of the great Chief Dan George, there is reason to celebrate. When those words were first proclaimed, there were roughly 200 Status Indians taking courses at Canadian universities and colleges. In 2011, the number of self-identified Aboriginal people with a post-secondary qualification had grown to about 174,000.  Aboriginal students of all ages are embracing post secondary education for a better future for themselves, their communities and all of Canada. Aboriginal post-secondary attendance has proven to be a tremendous success. 

The Aboriginal students I meet with regularly at Nipissing University are intelligent, strong, creative individuals. Each bring their own history, some are overcoming challenges and barriers; all are charting a new course based on the positive transformation that education provides.

We, all Canadians, should celebrate these accomplishments; however this is not the time to rest.  A great deal of work remains, as the 94 recommendations included in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s report makes clear. The report rightfully characterizes education as a key element of reconciliation.  Given the power and ability of universities to inform policy, create curriculum, foster public discourse and transform individuals, communities and nations, it is clear that universities will play a key role in advancing the report’s recommendations while continuing to push our society to evolve and advance. 

Success at the university level begins long before a child enters university. In many cases the post-secondary system is challenged by helping students overcome poor preparation at the K-12 level. For Aboriginal students to succeed in a post-secondary setting, they need to be provided greater opportunity to succeed in the primary and secondary levels.  The shameful underfunding of reserve schools must be addressed and brought to a level commensurate with the rest of Canada. 

Given the remote location of many First Nations, students must travel far from home to attend high school or post-secondary institutions. While many Canadians might believe that all Aboriginal students receive free post-secondary education, the reality is quite different. Though funding is available, it has not kept pace with the increased number of students rising to meet Chief George's challenge. First Nations students are, on average, older and are more likely to have children, further exacerbating the lack of funds and requiring new programs be put in place to meet the needs of these students and their families.

The specific curricular needs of Aboriginal students must be addressed.  The power of Faculties of Education, like Nipissing’s Schulich School of Education, to train effective teachers is key.  We must all work to develop teachers who bring an understanding of Aboriginal culture and can integrate Indigenous knowledge and teaching methods into their classrooms.  We must blaze a new path in developing  culturally relevant curriculum to help future teachers better meet the needs of all their pupils.

Today, Aboriginal people have one of the largest youth populations in Canada and universities are paying attention. Programs have been developed to introduce young Aboriginal students to the possibilities that exist in university, recruitment is robust, and transition programs are in place to help students succeed.

The university acts as a crucible, where ideas and perspectives are introduced to create something entirely new.  The integration of indigenous knowledge and perspective into all facets of university life, including curricula, programs and services, builds a deeper understanding of First Nation and Metis cultures within our institutions. This deeper understanding, wielded by graduates as educators, business leaders, nurses, social workers, police officers, coaches, politicians and more, will have a profound impact on the decolonization of society.

Education is transformative, for individual, community and society. Our universities will play a leading role in the way forward.  A great deal of success has been achieved and there remains much work.

The way forward is clear. The future is bright. Universities are aiding Aboriginal peoples to achieve their educational goals and become the proudest segment of society.  All Canadians will benefit.