Comment: A generational shift in aboriginal education

This is the time of year when students graduate, families celebrate and schools breathe a sigh of relief that they have successfully supported hundreds — even thousands — of people navigating the challenges of post-secondary education. However, at this critical point in our history, it is important to recognize these cultural milestones as relatively new for aboriginal people.

While formal education is a norm in our modern society, aboriginal communities have typically experienced barriers to participation, whether due to the remote location of their communities, limited financial means to hire educators or a lack of familiarity with the path through education, training and employment. Whether cultural or systemic, the result is a deeply ingrained fear of failure and a perpetual cycle of exclusion — exclusion from education, employment and society.

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 Recently, I surveyed my colleagues working in the field of aboriginal education. I asked: “What do you perceive to be the biggest challenge in getting — and keeping — aboriginal people enrolled in post-secondary education or technical training?”

The most consistent reason identified was low self-esteem, followed by fear and a sense of not belonging. Other challenges include a lack of role models and unfamiliar or unwelcoming environments.

But there is new evidence pointing to profound change. In fact, I will be bold and call this a generational shift. As the young aboriginal population reaches working age, they are participating in education and economic activity at unprecedented levels. This is not only due to the perseverance of committed students. but also to the dedication of progressive educators and employers.

As vice-chairwoman of the B.C. Institute of Technology board of governors, I recently participated in the institute’s “Honouring Our Leaders” aboriginal graduation ceremony. In attendance were 35 honourees from a wide range of program areas, although I am told there were more than 120 aboriginal BCIT graduates this year, many of whom are already working.

Also in attendance were 25 aboriginal alumni, 15 mentors and five elders who came to show their support and witness the shift toward leadership and prosperity for our aboriginal grads. And last year alone, aboriginal students earned 220 BCIT credentials — including degrees, diplomas and certificates — up from 140 in 2009.

As CEO of the Aboriginal Mentoring and Training Association, I have witnessed more than 2,600 aboriginal people commit to a process of personal and professional development and, as they become ready, enter technical training, trades and a broad range of professions within the natural-resources sectors. With 850 employed candidates, AMTA provides a supportive, flexible path that ensures successful career development.

And with solid employers like Teck Resources Ltd., Ledcor Group and Sunridge Equipment, these people are working close to home and getting experience that will influence their life choices and affect the next generation and all those that follow.

As a First Nation person, what strikes me most profoundly is that these aboriginal graduates and employees are an integral part of something even bigger than what is visible. From an educational standpoint, whether through great institutions like BCIT or through organizations like AMTA, they are accomplishing more than the generations before them. They are building momentum and creating lasting impacts for their families and communities.

And most important, they are changing the story of aboriginal people in Canada as they lead a powerful shift toward higher educational attainment, greater participation in the economy and real financial independence.

I am humbled by the fortitude and commitment shown by the students and educators alike and I’m inspired by the material shift that is taking place. Yes, this will create economic health for aboriginal communities, but we must remember this shift will affect all Canadians. As the story changes for aboriginal people, it changes for an entire generation.

Laurie Sterritt is CEO of the Aboriginal Mentoring and Training Association and vice-chairwoman of the B.C. Institute of Technology.

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