Widening the welcome to native students

Widening the welcome to native students McGill University

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McGill Reporter
April 19, 2001 - Volume 33 Number 15
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 33: 2000-2001 > April 19, 2001 > Widening the welcome to native students

Widening the welcome to native students

Photo Law student Mary Lee Armstrong at her home in Kahnawake
PHOTO: Owen Egan

Being aboriginal at McGill is to be part of an invisible minority, so invisible, in fact, that even the First Peoples' House, established three years ago to provide native students with the company and advice they might need being far from home, doesn't necessarily know who is native and in what programs native students are enrolled. This explains why Tracee Diabo, the coordinator of FPH, can't give an exact number of native students though she knows there are 10 graduate students and believes there are 30 or so undergraduates.

Now, you might ask: does this matter? Perhaps the aboriginal students who choose McGill don't need any particular support beyond what is available to all students. Perhaps they don't want to be identified as being particularly aboriginal. To that, Diabo would answer that of all the aboriginal undergraduates only one is graduating this year and, in her experience of the past three years, too many drop out. Having a greater sense of community would help, she believes.

"Most students are from small communities so coming to a big metropolis can make some feel pretty alone. The same can happen to any student coming from a small town but we can't afford to lose any," she says.

In native communities, a person with a university degree is not only a skilled person who stands to have good opportunities for work, he or she is also a native ambassador for higher education, a guide and mentor for those wanting to take the same path. Given that there is no tradition of higher education in most native communities, every graduate counts.

"You don't have the same role models," says Mary Lee Armstrong, a third-year law student who lives in Kahnawake, a Mohawk reserve on Montreal's south shore. "You don't have people in your families who've gone on to do postsecondary degrees. But [non-aboriginal] people you go to school [university] with, their families had gone before them. For us, we were the first in our families to go and to experience that."

Diabo believes that with more support, more would graduate but laments the fact that she's it, as far as services for native students go. Support, however, is only one side of the coin. Recruitment is the other. "We could have lots more students here," she says. Concordia University, for instance, which began its Centre for Native Education in 1992 and has two full-time staff members, has 170 "known" native students.

While it is not their centre's responsibility to recruit native students, coordinator Manon Tremblay visits schools and attends special native events to speak of Concordia and the centre. "As soon as someone shows interest in postsecondary education, we begin helping them with the application process," she says.

While it's important to do those things and it's important that it's a native person making the contact, she says, it's the recommendations made by students and alumni that carry the greatest weight.

"We're still very much an oral tradition and I find that word of mouth works best," says Tremblay.

That's also true at McGill; while there are not yet a great number of students or graduates to spread the good word, there are hundreds of "off-campus" students and graduates. The irony is that although the University lags in its effort to recruit and retain native students, it has, for the past 25 years, worked extensively in remote aboriginal communities developing and delivering community-based programs in the areas of education and social work.

Some of the 200 students enrolled annually end up attending summer courses and about five per year end up coming from their communities to study at McGill, says Susann Allnutt, program administrator at McGill's Office of First Nations and Inuit Education. "There are large numbers studying at McGill but not on campus.

"The community-based programs don't make native students visible on campus," she notes, adding that First Nations and Inuit people in Quebec are unique in Canada for the fact that most of them don't live in cities, they live in communities which are a long way from the south.

Diabo agrees that the community-based programs may be good for some but she's concerned that certificates created only for native people don't give them the flexibility to travel and work at will. "Is that empowering or disempowering?" she asks. "Besides," she continues, "not everyone wants to be a teacher or a social worker."

Furthermore, says Diabo, there are 45,000 aboriginal people in the Montreal area, according to Statistics Canada.

Slowly, with pressure from Diabo and her allies in the University, McGill's recruitment efforts are changing. Two years ago, for instance, the Admissions, Recruitment and Registrar's Office made money available so that Diabo and two recruitment officers could attend the National Aboriginal Career Symposium in Ottawa and the office attends any Mohawk career fairs to which it is invited. Recruiters also meet numerous native students at career fairs in the western Canadian cities where there is a higher proportion of natives in the general high school population than here, says associate director of recruitment Beverly Redmond.

Diabo, along with Victoria Meikle, assistant dean of admissions in the Faculty of Law, also makes an annual pilgrimage to Concordia to inform graduating native students of the opportunity to study law at McGill. The Faculty of Law is interested in attracting native students and takes into consideration both their experience and aspirations, in addition to their marks.

All of this is well and good, Diabo says, but to get serious about attracting native students to McGill, the University must develop a sense of pride in its native students and alumni. In the United States and other parts of Canada, there are universities which have designed programs explicitly to attract natives, sometimes to particular faculties. Concordia, for instance, has a program in engineering. The universities of Saskatchewan and Manitoba have programs in medicine.

Mary Lee Tait, a Métis from Saskatchewan, knows first-hand what it is to feel valued as a native student. Winner of a 1996 Fulbright Scholarship, the 39-year-old PhD student in medical anthropology found that at Harvard, aboriginal students had a high profile on campus "and the university seemed to be proud of this, whereas at McGill it seems to be a non-starter."

It isn't that there's a shortage of illustrious graduates and graduate students. Dale Turner, for instance, who recently earned his PhD in philosophy in McGill, now teaches at Dartmouth College and Eldon Yellowhorn, in the final stages of his doctorate in anthropology, is already teaching archaeology at Simon Fraser University. Andra Simpson and Kaha:wi Jacobs are working on their doctorates in anthropology and transcultural psychiatry, respectively. Janine Metallic, a Mi'kmaq from Listuguj, Quebec, is a nutrition consultant for the Aboriginal Diabetes Initiative at the First Nations and Inuit Health Branch of Health Canada, having completed bachelor's degrees in both psychology and nutrition in 1999.

The work of developing and promoting McGill's native profile takes more than one person, not to mention the job of keeping track of graduates. Diabo doesn't necessarily have the time to keep up with, for instance, native career events in the country and beyond. Furthermore, she's not at liberty to close up shop in order to travel to Winnipeg or New York, for instance, to promote McGill to natives.

Don Taylor, psychology professor and chair of the Aboriginal Peoples Subcommittee of the Equity Committee, has suggested hiring aboriginal recruiters to target communities directly. "The obvious candidates would be aboriginal students who can speak first-hand to the experience of being at McGill, and can act as role models," he adds.

Tait agrees that this could work but has some concerns. "Part of me wants to caution that it's putting things back onto our shoulders," she says. "I don't think any other groups of students are asked to go out and recruit. I see it as shifting responsibility [to us]."

A number of aboriginal students already have family responsibilities to deal with and there needs to be consistency in recruitment efforts. Tait recommends making the coordinator of First Peoples' House a permanent position and giving her a budget for recruitment. "That would go a long way."

Getting stable funding for First Peoples' House, now rented from the University at $8,000 per year and funded by an operating grant from the Ministry of Education, is one of Taylor's priorities.

"It was great to get it up and running but when so much of our time and energy is directed at securing funding on an annual basis, it takes time away from providing the services you want," he says. "Even things like getting a photocopy machine is a major undertaking."

From Metallic's point of view, making native students feel welcome at McGill has to go beyond the work of the First Peoples' House. She recalls her feelings of isolation and intimidation in class, being the only native student, and would like the University to encourage professors to employ native students as summer interns or research assistants, foster a classroom environment that would encourage more participation of First Nations and Inuit students, and organize cultural events at McGill to make the aboriginal population more visible on campus.

Will McGill's decision-makers heed these cries? Time will tell. But the aboriginal community can't wait that long. Speaking of Kahnawake, Mary Lee Armstrong puts it like this: "There are very few educated people, so you feel like it's your community putting you through school," she says. "So, you owe them to give back and I want to make sure that the next generation will have those role models and know they can do it."

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