JEFF LEALPhoto by Jenny Fisher.

Jeff Leal, the Peterborough MPP for the Provincial Liberal Party, made an appearance at Trent University on Friday January 16 to announce provincial support for a Trent project called the Summer Aboriginal Student Transition Program.

The project will also be known as Biishkaa, which is Ojibway for Rise Up, and will take place during the three weeks before university and college classes start and will reach out to young Aboriginal students transitioning from secondary to post-secondary education.

Biishkaa will attempt to create a support network that features Indigenous knowledge, skills building, mentorship, living on and learning from the land, experiential learning, individual success plans, workshops and healing circles, Elders and traditional teaching, and orientation to the institutions for first nations.

The project will be developed in partnership with Fleming College, Hiawatha First Nation, Curve Lake First Nation, and Niijkiwendidaa Anishnaabekwewag Services Circle.

Leal was joined in the Gathering Space at Peter Gzowski College on Friday by Dr. Leo Groarke, President of Trent University; Dr. Tony Tilly, President of Fleming College; and Adam Hopkins, Acting Director for the First Peoples House of Learning to make the announcement.

The Ontario Provincial Government is investing $310,915.00 over two years into the innovative program. The funding will be coming from the Ontario Government’s Mental Health and Addictions Strategy. As of now, the program will be two years to evaluate success.

According to Adam Hopkins, “It’s actually a pretty innovative program that we’ve applied for. It’s a two-year run and we’re really excited about the implications of what this means for not just students at Trent, but Fleming as well.”

He continued, “It’s really built from the ground up, with both our Indigenous knowledge and Aboriginal learners in mind – which kind of really goes against the traditional dynamics. That basically means that we’ve received the flexibility to make sure the program meets the learners needs as opposed to making them fit what we already offer.”

While this program is innovative in its design, similar transition programs do already exist in Ontario and Canada. Simon Fraser University, the University of Toronto, the University of Alberta, and the University of Victoria all have full-year transition programs for Aboriginal students, for instance.

The reason these programs exist is because of the numerous barriers that exist for Aboriginal students seeking post-secondary education in Canada today.

According to research conducted by The International Indigenous Policy Journal (IIPJ), these barriers include inadequate financial resources, poor academic preparation, an absence of role-models that have post-secondary education, lack of understanding of Aboriginal culture on campus, racism on campus, and finally, a very jaded history of forced assimilation through non-Aboriginal educational institutions and residential schools.

These barriers are reflected by the amount of First Nations that have attended or are attending university or college.

According to a study conducted by Queen’s University in 2011, Aboriginal people are quite significantly under-represented on campuses in Canada.  The study showed that only one in 33 Aboriginals will get a post-secondary degree as opposed to  one in five for the rest of Canadians.

Another study by the IIPJ showed that only 39% of Aboriginal people between the ages of 25 and 64 have graduated from some form of post-secondary education, compared to the overall Canadian attainment level of 54%.

Aboriginals are the fastest growing demographic group in Canada, growing almost five times faster than the rate of other Canadians. It’s estimated that by 2017, Aboriginal people between the ages of 20 and 29 (post-secondary age) will have increased roughly 40% from the time of the Queen’s study, which has led to a call for government action to vastly improve education accessibility for First Nations.

Trent University has taken on the project to help with this very real problem in Canada, and according to Trent President Leo Groarke, “Trent University prides itself on being a leader and innovator in Indigenous education so it is fitting that we are launching this program with our partners in the region.”

He continued, “This grant will enable Trent to build a program focused on identifying individual and cultural strengths that lead to success and personal well-being for generations of future students.”