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SMU's Aboriginal Education Task Force slow to act

One year after Loretta Saunders' murder, recommendations of report not implemented

by Miles Howe

Saint Mary's University [photo via flickr]
Saint Mary's University [photo via flickr]

KJIPUKTUK), HALIFAX - It was just over one year ago that the President of Saint Mary's University (SMU), Colin Dodds, promised that a Task Force on Aboriginal Education would be assembled to investigate and address the lack of supports and services available to Aboriginal students at SMU. The announcement took place at a memorial gathering for Saint Mary's student Loretta Saunders, whose tragic murder had shocked the university's administration into taking actions that were arguably long overdue. The Task Force did convene and led an assessment into SMU's policies and procedures, and also compared SMU's supports and services for Aboriginal students to other universities across the country. The report was tabled in September, 2014.

Since then, however, SMU's administration appears to have sat on the report. The lack of action, especially in light of the Task Force's recent investigation, has resulted in an on-line petition that is currently circulating, accompanied by a list of demands. The list of signatories includes Loretta Saunders' mother – Miriam – and sister – Delilah – along with former SMU alumni, including author and residential school survivor, Isabelle Knockwood ('92).

“That Task Force seemed like they were reaching out,” says Molly Peters, a former Aboriginal student advisor at Saint FX University. “If they were going out to find out about the issues facing Aboriginal students, what's so hard about sharing it?”

Peters knows from experience that some of steps open to SMU are not difficult to implement, and make a world of difference to Aboriginal students trying to succeed at post-secondary institutions. These include hiring a full-time Aboriginal advisor and providing a safe space, on-campus, that Aboriginal students can access.

“Having a space to go, some kind of cultural space to go to – and support. These are the biggest things I've seen working in education,” says Peters.

Peters also sees the need of a full-time staff person as incredibly important for Aboriginal student success.

“It's hard to connect [as a student], if the student advisor is actually another student, working part-time hours. That way, there's turnover every year,” says Peters.

A 2009 study, undertaken by the Canadian Council on Learning (CCL), and which included input from Cape Breton University, Dalhousie University, the University of King’s College, Memorial University, the University of Prince Edward Island, Saint Mary’s University and Saint Thomas University, echoes Peters' judgement – and apparently the yet-unseen SMU Task Force report; Aboriginal students report that on-campus safe spaces, along with access to Aboriginal advisors, are key factors in their post-secondary success. The CCL study also found that investments into these areas are not just “empty dollars”; 68% of Aboriginal students reported awareness of on-campus supports available to them, while 63% reported using such supports where available.

At its economic minimum, self-identified Aboriginal people are one of the few demographics in Canada that is actually increasing in population. While a percentage of this statistic is acknowledged as being due to more people self-identifying as Aboriginal, more babies are also being made. For post-secondary institutions – and to a greater degree the country - it makes monetary sense to have post-secondary education be more accessible, appealing - and a successful experience – for Aboriginal students.

Peters notes that not all the Task Force's recommendations are as easy to implement as creating a safe, cultural, space or hiring a full-time Aboriginal advisor. She notes that the recommendations need to come from the “top down”, with “all administration having a firm understanding of the barriers that Aboriginal students face.”

On the other hand, there has been work done to develop a networking group amongst post-secondary institutions in the Maritimes. Peters notes that the Atlantic Aboriginal Advisory Networking Group was developed with the specific intent of “help in sharing” information between schools, towards developing increased success amongst Aboriginal students.

“There are resource people available to help in trying to set up supports,” notes Peters. “Knowing what supports, services and programs are available in other universities [could help].”

Basically, Saint Mary's, arguably far behind other Atlantic Canadian universities in this regard, would not have to reinvent the proverbial wheel as it revamps itself.

As for SMU's official stance?

“At Saint Mary's we're currently checking the status of the report. We'll get back to you when we have more information,” notes David Harrison, communications assistance at SMU.

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Topics: Education
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