Indigenous students deal with greater barriers while attending school

News Unsettled Opinions

Constant responsibilities and expectations can be taxing, but you are not alone

News Unsettled Native Students Union column
Graphic provided by the Native Students Union.

This September thousands of students will return to campus. The return is an exciting and nerve wracking prospect for many. For Indigenous students, however, the return to school can mean a great deal of extra stress.

University itself is, at its core, a colonial institution. Education has been weaponized for decades against Indigenous people. University is just another one of these weapons — gatekeeping careers and opportunities against those who cannot afford it, or deal with the mental stress. This year marks 60 years since enfranchisement laws ended in 1961, which barred Indigenous people from attending university, or even leaving reserves for long periods without giving up their Indigenous identity and rights in exchange for full Canadian citizenship. 

All universities on Turtle Island are planted directly on Indigenous land. These institutions reap the benefits of past and ongoing colonialism, and only recently started changing. But changes of name, like at Ryerson, and land acknowledgements are not enough. In a 2018 study, it was found that less than 1.5 per cent of professors in Canada were Indigenous. In a 2016 study, the percentage of racialized professors in Canada was 21 per cent. Meaning 79 per cent of professors in Canada were white in 2016. These institutions can be incredibly unsafe spaces for Indigenous students. The total student body at UVic is a little over 22,000, however, only about 1,400 of those students are Indigenous. Being so underrepresented can have a toll, and make university feel even more foreign and unsafe than it is. 

Every year, Indigenous students are returning to colonial institutions on stolen land, where they are extremely underrepresented. Not only are Indigenous students having to return every year to these institutions, but Indigenous students face additional barriers and responsibilities outside of attending classes. These barriers and responsibilities are a daily feat. 

 For many Indigenous students, the act of going away to school is hard. They have to leave their communities and their families. Community is a vital part of life. Staying connected while managing university life is a struggle. Often, Indigenous students have responsibilities within their communities. Both that they expect themselves to fulfill, and others expect them to fulfill. Being so far away and disconnected makes it impossible for Indigenous students to fulfill these obligations. 

Indigenous people make up less than 5 per cent globally, and in Canada, but care for 80 per cent of the global biodiversity. Indigenous students and youth are often on the front lines of climate activism. For example, many of the Indigenous Youth for Wet’suwet’en that locked down the legislature last year were students. Some students even had to choose between attending classes and taking a stand for the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs. Without Indigenous youth being on the front lines, movements like Indigenous Youth for Wet’suwet’en, Shut Down Canada, and Fairy Creek would not have the success they do. One cannot be present at school, either physically or mentally, when they feel the climate, and the future of the world, depends on them to make a stand. 

As an Indigenous student, I would like to give some grounding words to the new student class:  when you return to or begin university in September remember that you are not alone. The system can feel impossible and hostile, but what you are doing is an extraordinary accomplishment. Those of you coming to UVic always have the Native Students Union for support, and are always welcome at the First People’s House. There’s also a great community of Elders in Residence at UVic that love when Indigenous students from anywhere drop in to visit. You can also read the Martlet article on Indigenous student supports to find exactly what you are looking for. 

Don’t be afraid to ask other Indigenous students or staff about any issues you face, it’s likely you’re not the first to be overcoming them.