Increasing Indigenous Peoples Participation in Higher Education

Increasing Indigenous Peoples Participation in Higher Education

The world is changing at an accelerated rate and Canadian universities of 2040 will need be different than they are today on a number of fronts including for example, responding to disruptive changes in technology, growing attention to social accountability and social justice, the environment, and major aging population trends.  One area that warrants attention in Canada is the growth in attention to Indigenous education.

Policy changes

Based on my own experience working in postsecondary education for the last three decades the proliferation of services and programs designed to attract and meet the needs of Indigenous peoples has grown more in the last decade than the previous two decades. In fact many postsecondary institutions have recently made a number of changes in response to the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRC) 94 Calls to Action in 2015, including but not limited to developing formal responses to the TRC, increasing Indigenous content in the curriculum and increasing Indigenous scholars across the disciplines. Some institutions have also established Indigenous led research institutes and have built additional Indigenous based programs at the graduate level.

Despite these changes, the seminal policy document released in 1972 by the National Indian Brotherhood (NIB), which began the long fight to gain control of their education by outlining a policy on ‘Indian control of Indian education’ remains relevant today as Indigenous peoples continue to strive for self-determination in education.

Further to the understanding the evolving context, the province of Ontario recently brought in legislation in 2017 that would build a more sustainable Indigenous postsecondary system and will eventually lead to the establishment of another Indigenous university, adding to the Indigenous postsecondary institutions that already exist (for example, First Nations University in Saskatchewan).  This will be a significant step towards self-determination.

Demographic change as a driver

To add to the context that will propel change as we move into the future, most, if not all, universities will have caught on to an important fact – Indigenous populations are growing at a much faster rate than the rest of the Canadian population.  According to Statistics Canada, in the 2016 census, there were 1,673,785 Indigenous people in Canada representing 4.9% of the national population (up from 3.8% in 2006 and 2.8% in 1996). By 2036 the Indigenous population is predicted to grow to be 6.1% of the Canadian population.

Further, while the rest of the Canadian population ages the Indigenous population is and will continue to be a younger population.  For example, the average age of the Indigenous population is 32.1 years, whereas the general Canadian population’s average age is 40.9 years. These statistics have important implications for postsecondary education institutions as well as the labour market, in which there are predicted shortages especially in the area of technology.

Looking forward to 2040

As I look to 2040 I envision that the movement of responding to the needs of Indigenous peoples will continue since many institutions have already made commitments to change. This will be especially true for institutions that have embedded structural changes in their respective systems.  For example, committed administrative and tenure track positions will continue to grow in the next decade thereby leading more systemic changes as Indigenous scholars take up positions in a range of disciplines.  This will no doubt impact continued changes in curriculum as well as an increase of Indigenous students on campuses across Canada.

The establishment of an Indigenous postsecondary institution in the province of Ontario, which will provide another avenue for Indigenous students to pursue university education, will also lead to an increase in partnerships and collaborations across the sector. Indigenous postsecondary institutions will lead the way in ensuring survival of Indigenous languages and cultures.

Finally, it is important to think about the broader global environment.  Indigenous people’s relationships extend across the world. We, in fact, have become much more global than ever before.

“As the world confronts big issues such as climate change, environmental impacts relating to industry, food security, our very survival will depend on utilizing all knowledge systems and resources”.

In my opinion, this will mean that in 2040 we can imagine increased attention to understanding Indigenous knowledges, which will continue to be important sources of critical knowledge on the environment, sustainability and survival.

¹ National Indian Brotherhood (NIB) Assembly of First Nations, (1972), Indian control of Indian education, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada: N

² Statistics Canada, (2018), National Indigenous Peoples Day… by the numbers

3 Statistics Canada, (2018), National Indigenous Peoples Day… by the numbers


Sheila Cote-Meek, Ph.D., is Anishinaabe from the Teme-Augama Anishnabai. Author of Colonized Classrooms – Racism, Trauma and Resistance in Post-Secondary Education Sheila is the incoming Vice-President, Equity People and Culture at York University in Canada. She has extensive experience in leading Indigenous initiatives in postsecondary education and has played a lead role in mobilizing systemic change that impact Indigenous learners. In 2016 she was nominated as an Indigenous Role Model for the Council of Ontario Universities Future Further Campaign and in 2103 she was the recipient of a YWCA Women of Distinction Award.

Dr. Cote-Meek is an active researcher and has extensive experience working with Indigenous communities regionally, nationally as well as internationally on social justice, education and health related issues.

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