Many paths forward: Strategies for improving post-secondary education outcomes of Indigenous learners in Canada

Dan Cantiller
Feb 2 · 15 min read
Image credit: Shutterstock

December 1, 2019

The struggle for Indigenous rights in Canada is an ongoing endeavour. Although more attention and awareness of the experiences and inequities of Indigenous peoples in Canada has grown in the past decade, Indigenous people experience less access to economic prosperity and a poorer quality of life compared to non-Indigenous Canadians, especially if they live on reserve (Vowel, 2016). Successful completion of post-secondary education (PSE) and training may unlock some opportunities for Indigenous people to preserve knowledge and advance leadership within their own communities as well as succeed within majority non-Indigenous communities (Hampton, 2000). Given the harmful history of the residential school system in Canada, many Indigenous people have an uneasy regard for formal (settler) education systems that rarely acknowledge or value the cultures, traditions and knowledges that are inherently part of their identity (Malatest et al., 2010; Restoule, 2011; Tomaszewski et al., 2011). There are many challenges at present and ahead to improve PSE outcomes for Indigenous learners in Canada. Likewise, there are many strategies already employed by post-secondary institutions (PSIs) and Indigenous communities. Successful collaborations around access and support programs for Indigenous learners must recognize local and regional needs, and must be grounded in a spirit of empowering, instead of assimilating, Indigenous peoples.

A note about terminology

Throughout this article, I will use the term Indigenous as referring to those who originate from the traditional peoples of the land we currently consider as Canada. This includes, but is not limited to: First Nations, Métis and Inuit, status and non-status Indians, and regardless of whether they live on or off reserve. I use Indigenous as a term meant to be encompassing of the many Indigenous Nations with whom we share the land. Although the terms Aboriginal and Indian are used in some Canadian laws and policies, my understanding is that Indigenous is currently regarded as more inclusive and appropriate, superseded when the use of the specific name of an Indigenous Nation or identity is available (Vowel, 2016, p. 9–10).

Critical literature review

Since contact, Indigenous people in Canada have survived and continue to navigate an evolving relationship with the settler government. Efforts to assimilate the Indigenous peoples into Western society have taken many forms including legislation like the Indian Act, which to this day continues to dictate and control many aspects of Indigenous people’s lives (Vowel, 2016). More recently, awareness has spread about the impacts of the residential school system, through the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2015; as cited in Battiste et al., 2016). Residential schools were mostly entrusted to and administered by various Christian denomination churches. The negative impacts that these schools had on Indigenous children is well documented, with abuses ranging from physical, sexual, emotional and spiritual forms (Cote-Meek, 2014; Vowel, 2016).

Although the last of the residential schools closed in 1996 (Vowel, 2016), the impacts from this period in our history are devastating and still felt. For those who survived the residential schools, many felt isolated from the communities that they returned to. Generations were deprived of the knowledge and sense of pride in their Indigenous identity. Many survivors struggle with poor mental health and substance abuse, and the impacts continue to effect Indigenous families and communities (Malatest et al., 2000; Vowel, 2016).

Many Canadians have not grown up learning about Indigenous cultures, issues and Canadian history from Indigenous perspectives. Our public education system and understanding of our nation’s history remains Eurocentric and seldom allows space or appreciation of Indigenous knowledges and perspectives. When it is perceived to be introduced to curriculum or institutional programming as “add-on”, non-Indigenous students may regard this as an imposition (Gebhard, 2018). Complicating matters, educators often lack the knowledge and training to confidently facilitate intercultural and anti-racist discussion in the classroom (Gebhard, 2018; Tompkins, 2002). In instances where an Indigenous learner is part of these learning environments, they may often feel marginalized, tokenized, or expected to serve as a spokesperson charged with the responsibility to educate their non-Indigenous peers (Cote-Meek, 2014).

Across the reviewed literature, common themes emerge as to why relatively fewer Indigenous learners progress to post-secondary studies and training. For many Indigenous people, especially those who live on reserve, completion of high school studies and further post-secondary pursuits often require that they leave their home communities (Malatest et al., 2010). Students’ safety and separation from the community are some of the concerns why family and community members may oppose an Indigenous person’s studies. Family systems and responsibilities are at the heart of many Indigenous cultures, so navigating this separation and adherence to the academic calendar can be quite challenging for Indigenous learners in programs that do not allow for distance learning or modular learning formats. Many Indigenous learners tend to be older and female, so if housing and childcare needs cannot be satisfied, PSIs may lose out on prospective Indigenous students (Davis, 2000; Tomaszewski et al., 2011).

Although scholarships and bursaries exist for Indigenous learners, the cost of pursuing PSE can be prohibitive. Many young Indigenous students who have to move away from their communities into larger cities also struggle with the transition to independence and personal budgeting (Battiste et al., 2016). Even though some PSIs have intentionally reserved seats in their academic programs for Indigenous learners and have expanded their admission requirements to recognize different forms of learning and life experience, these administrative changes alone cannot address the academic and transition needs of Indigenous learners.

Primary and secondary education on reserve remains to be under-resourced when compared to education systems for the general Canadian public (Battiste et al., 2016; Hampton, 2000). Even students who participate in “mainstream” primary and secondary schools may struggle with their academics, as they often confront lowered academic expectations from their teachers and racism within the learning environment (Gebhard, 2018). As such, some Indigenous learners may benefit from academic and transition bridging programs, which may include courses in math and science and also prepare these students for academic writing. Mentorship and support through Indigenous student services can also help Indigenous learners to navigate the policies and expectations of PSIs.

For Indigenous learners in more remote locations and in the North, the key to pursuing PSE and training may be through distance learning and programs that allow for more modular, self-directed pathways to completion. Davis (2000) recounts that since the 1970s, distance education has opened up avenues to education in the Canadian North, evolving to include interactive videoconferencing through satellite learning centres where possible. Even with such models, these learners require a great deal of academic support and creative forms of tutoring (e.g. by phone), when in-person instruction may not be available. Teaching methods that still emphasize personal contact and interaction have been found to best engage Indigenous learners, as this style is more congruent with Indigenous teaching and cultural practices (Davis, 2000).

Even for Indigenous learners who reside in more urban locales, other issues of access to PSE success arise. Battiste et al. (2016) note that these students bring with them “high levels of ethnostress, trauma, poverty, and anxiety about living and being educated in urban areas” (p. 78). Some of these challenges arise from the racism that Indigenous learners experience both within PSIs and the wider community.

Within the learning environment, efforts to decolonize the curriculum and recognize Indigenous ways of knowing with equal respect can improve the learning of Indigenous students (and non-Indigenous students too). Ragoonaden and Mueller (2017) support the incorporation of culturally responsive pedagogy (CRP) to make the curriculum and teachings relevant to the experiences and perspectives of the students. For Indigenous learners who may feel that their identities and culture are erased in the Eurocentric academy, such efforts are particularly meaningful. CRP for Indigenous learners emphasizes relationships between the student and teacher, and relations between the subjects, learners’ experiences and the land. It encourages mentorship that supports learners’ social/emotional and academic development, and connects learners’ common experiences.

Currently, some PSIs employ access/bridging programs for Indigenous learners and specialized student supports as recruitment and retention strategies. In reviewing such programs within Ontario PSIs, Malatest et al. (2010) found that although universally considered to be beneficial for Indigenous learners, research about these supports is mostly qualitative, and there lacks general standards and benchmarks against which to evaluate them. This may also point to the fact that the programs are multifaceted and the staff who administer them are at or over capacity, engaged in the work and discovering best practices that fit their specific institutional and community needs.

In addition to barriers previously discussed related to finances, discrimination, family responsibilities and rural/remote location, Malatest et al. (2010) also identify language barriers and a lack of role models as impediments to Indigenous learners accessing and completing PSE. Some Indigenous learners use English as an additional language and may require further assistance in developing their academic writing skills in order to be successful in their studies and training. Access and transition programs for Indigenous learners can help introduce them to valuable peers, staff and faculty who can guide their academic experience, especially if their home communities have lacked members who have gone this path before (Restoule, 2011). An important aspect to promoting such programs in recruitment is to help prospective Indigenous students to imagine themselves within the institution, and knowing who they may be able to turn to as guides as they progress through their studies.

Richardson & Blanchet-Cohen (2000) described three approaches that PSIs can use to structure their programs for Indigenous learners: add-on, partnership and “First Nations control” (FNC). Add-on approaches may be the simplest to implement but do little in requiring substantial shifts in how the academy regards Indigenous knowledges and cultures. Add-on approaches may signal to non-Indigenous students, faculty and staff that such initiatives may be implemented with the goal of appeasing current, yet passing, institutional priorities. Partnership and FNC involve more Indigenous leadership and a greater emphasis on ongoing relationships and commitment. Most Indigenous programs within Western PSIs likely follow the partnership approach if not the add-on type. FNC goes a step further, where Indigenous people do not only have administrative influence over the programs, but truly define and restructure PSE to meet the specific needs of Indigenous communities. Challenges with FNC approaches are the lack of program accreditation. The recognition of education programs through Western PSIs means that, for now, add-on and partnership approaches are more prevalent in programs for Indigenous learner success. Hampton (2000) offers a similar typology of models for Indigenous PSE, namely: assimilation, special program/department, federated/affiliated, and autonomous institution.

Application of strategies

PSI administrators striving to implement the strategies discussed in the literature should consider key stakeholders, the public interest, educational aims and the applied context. After discussing these first three areas, I will elaborate on specific programs at Ryerson University in Toronto.

Key stakeholders

Key stakeholders regarding the PSE outcomes of Indigenous learners are the students themselves, their families and communities. PSIs are also stakeholders, in particular senior administrators, faculty and support staff — both Indigenous and non-Indigenous. Local, provincial and federal levels of governments are also stakeholders in Indigenous learner success, as the education and training of Indigenous people will impact their ability to achieve employment success and contribute to strengthen their local communities. Non-Indigenous citizens particularly in communities and industries with larger Indigenous representation should be invested in their education and training success as well. Canadians who are educated about the impact of colonization and legacy of the residential school system should be invested in strategies that work cooperatively with Indigenous peoples to pursue a more inclusive and culturally-informed education.

Non-Indigenous policymakers may be invested in the PSE success of Indigenous learners as a means to improve social conditions and economic opportunities for Indigenous communities. With specific Calls to Action regarding education from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2015; as cited in Battiste et al., 2016), public PSIs may feel even more compelled and guided to adapt their programs and policies. With some government grant funding specifically reserved for educational initiatives to benefit Indigenous learners and their communities, PSIs may be further motivated to find or create opportunities to access these resources.

The interests and goals of Indigenous peoples regarding success in post-secondary education may differ from their non-Indigenous counterparts (Hampton, 2000). Whereas some Canadians may view the education of Indigenous learners as an opportunity to integrate them with mainstream society, Indigenous-led PSIs and programs may be able to revitalize Indigenous knowledges, languages and cultures that have been suppressed under colonization. It is hoped that Indigenous-led education will advance leadership within Indigenous Nations to achieve sovereignty, and increase leaders’ ability to effectively organize and navigate the complicated relationships they have with the Canadian settler government.

Public interest

As touched on in the previous section, the greater public is impacted by the PSE outcomes of Indigenous learners. As Canada has an increasingly aging population, there will be a need to replenish the workforce that sustains our economy. Whereas other communities within the Canadian population are experiencing or expecting declines, the Indigenous community is growing, especially the number of Indigenous youth (Statistics Canada, 2017). There is an opportunity for Canada to address concerns about Indigenous poverty, underemployment and poor heath outcomes through increased efforts to improve educational and employment outcomes for current and future generations. But as different levels of public education do not operate in isolation from each other, efforts to improve Indigenous learners’ pursuit of post-secondary education will require reform and improvement of the current primary and secondary education systems as well.

Equality and nondiscrimination are elevated as core Canadian values under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Government of Canada, 2019). Despite Canada regularly being ranked among the top countries internationally with regards to human rights and quality of life, there is much work to be done so that these recognitions can be honestly celebrated. Within Canada, Indigenous peoples regularly experience barriers and discrimination. As some examples of this, one need only to consider the lack of safe drinking water on many reserves and the overrepresentation of Indigenous people within the child welfare and justice systems (Vowel, 2016). The safety of Indigenous women in Canadian society is precarious; they are often subject to violence, to such an extent that the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls recently described the ongoing scourge as a genocide (Barrera, 2019). If equality within Canada is a goal, our efforts within education must recognize the inequities experienced by Indigenous peoples as a result of systemic and social discrimination. In response, culturally-informed interventions and supports and intercultural cooperation are necessary for Indigenous peoples to access and enjoy the opportunities afforded to non-Indigenous Canadians.

Educational aims

According to the research reviewed, education is commonly regarded as an avenue to access economic opportunity and self-sufficiency in the forms of employment and integration within the community. Many Indigenous people are motivated to complete their high school studies and pursue training and certification towards employment. In some studies, it was shown that Indigenous learners were more represented within apprenticeships and college programs, perhaps because of their strong and closer connections with sector-specific skills and training, as compared to university programs which may be more academic and research focused (Malatest et al., 2010; Richardson & Blanchet-Cohen, 2000; Tomaszewski et al., 2011).

From articles discussing education that is Indigenous controlled or led, it is clear that education can also serve as a tool to facilitate exploring and solidifying a sense of Indigenous identity (Richardson & Blanchet-Cohen, 2000). Education can also aid in preserving and revitalizing Indigenous cultures, traditions and languages. These authors describe the purpose of education as ultimately contributing to leadership, nation-building and sovereignty of Indigenous lives from the settler Canadian state.

Recognizing the spectrum of these educational aims compared to the former, it is important to reflect on who defines the purpose and goals of Indigenous learners’ PSE outcomes. PSIs that have been most successful in recruiting and graduating Indigenous learners have aligned their programs to met the local and regional needs of their Indigenous communities. In the case of Indigenous PSE outcomes, one strategy or approach cannot meet all the diverse needs of the numerous Indigenous Nations throughout Canada. To ensure a culturally-informed and Indigenous led strategy for PSE, McCue (2006) recommended the creation of a “Senior Council on Aboriginal PSE” for the British Columbia region, at a parallel level with the councils of university and college presidents, so as to clarify a mandate for Indigenous education outcomes.

Applied context

As explored by Malatest et al. (2010), many Ontario PSIs currently have access/transition programs and support services for Indigenous learners. More Northern institutions have developed partnerships with remote reserves and continue to facilitate distance learning programs and supports. The concentration of PSIs in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton region attracts students from all over, including Indigenous learners from diverse communities. More commonly, efforts have been made to create visible centres for Indigenous community members on campuses and PSIs have been increasing their efforts to demonstrate their commitments to Indigenous communities and culturally-responsive pedagogy, including the hiring of Indigenous faculty (Durrani, 2019; Mulholland, 2018).

At Ryerson University, the Aboriginal Foundations Program is administered as a partnership between the Spanning the Gaps — Access to Post-Secondary Education program and the G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education (Ryerson University, n.d.1). This program operates in the evening on a weekly basis throughout the academic term. It focuses on supporting learners’ writing and critical thinking skills, and preparing students for certificate programs or university academic studies. The program is instructed by a staff person from Ryerson Aboriginal Student Services (RASS) who has a background in social work and Aboriginal adult education. RASS makes available many of the recommended student support program features described by Malatest et al. (2010), including community outreach and admissions support, cultural teaching and counseling support through Traditional Teachers and Elders, and a peer support office and network (Ryerson University, n.d.2). In addition to the support available to Indigenous learners through RASS and the Aboriginal Foundations Program, faculties have also hired strategic advisors on Indigenous initiatives and relations, as further supports to faculty and administrators across academic disciplines (Astwood-George, 2019; Ryerson University, 2019).


Many barriers exist for Indigenous learners accessing and achieving PSE and training in Canada. Considerable among them are emerging from the legacy of the residential school system and the lasting impacts they have on Indigenous communities, confronting racism within Western PSIs, and redesigning education to reflect the lives and meet the needs of Indigenous peoples. Advancing education that honours Indigenous knowledges, values and cultures can hopefully empower Indigenous Nations to achieve access and equality of opportunity. Various efforts are already underway through partnerships with PSIs and Indigenous-led models that serve unique academic and socio-cultural needs of these communities. Though many paths forward can be imagined, what is clear is that Indigenous leadership in PSE is needed to ensure that curricula and supports are culturally responsive. Strategies to improve PSE access and outcomes should be regionally based to account for the diverse needs and challenges of Indigenous Nations and communities.


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Academic advisor & Student Affairs pro working in Canadian Higher Education. Current Master of Education student. Queer. Baritone. Toronto is home. (he/him)

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