COLUMN: Jessica Iron Joseph — Sept. 21, 2012

Jessica Iron Joseph
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Since it’s September and school is in full swing everywhere, I thought I’d clear up some misconceptions about university funding and First Nations students in Canada. Most people believe that all Indians get free schooling, which is a complete fallacy.

First, let’s explore the traditional route for most non-Native students. Usually parents pay for their kids’ schooling, or at least a portion, while the students either work part-time jobs or take out student loans to cover the remaining portion. For First Nations students, this is generally not an option.

My mother’s generation were some of the first post-secondary graduates. In fact, my mother was the first person in my family to receive a full education. My grandfather only received a Grade 3 education, which wasn’t uncommon for his generation.

There definitely wasn’t any spare money for my mother to send me to university, not when she was a single mom raising three kids.

It didn’t faze me. I was a diligent student and wasn’t concerned about finances. Though, when I graduated, my band was attempting to assume more control of its own finances, breaking free from its Tribal Council. My band, Canoe Lake First Nation, is one of the nine bands that make up the Meadow Lake Tribal Council (MLTC).

Because my band was seeking more autonomy, there was a decidedly confusing period where lines were blurred and administration was being sorted out.

My band’s post-secondary councillor wasn’t certain or not if I would be funded, though I had already been accepted to university. I decided to take out a student loan my first year. I wasn’t waiting for anyone.

Eventually, a year or two later, I did get funding, but it wasn’t much money. My tuition and books were covered, and I received several hundred dollars a month for living expenses, but it wasn’t enough to live on my own or even to share expenses with a roommate. I was grateful my mother still had an apartment in the city because I had to remain under her roof while I pursued my degree.

I understand that money is tight for most everyone in college, and I’m not bemoaning what I did receive, because I am grateful for it. I’m merely stating the truth for those who believe otherwise.

How each band divides its money for students is up to band policy, though each band is subject to national policy guidelines. Several of my friends from other bands were funded different amounts per month than me. Some received more, others less, but we were all within a similar range.

Where it gets tricky is that each band is only allotted a certain amount of money for post-secondary education, and each year the number of high school graduates increases, widening the pool of eligible applicants. Since the total amount of money is generally based on band population, it gets harder and harder for students to access funding because the competition rises each year.

Bands will often consider an applicant’s family life too. It makes more sense to fund two single moms with four children each than three single students, because the single moms have families to feed. Naturally, those with children would require more money than a single student, as they have other expenses like daycare to consider. So the money a band is granted by the government is divided differently each year, according to its needs. Due to surrounding circumstances, some years only a few students are funded, while other years the numbers seem much larger. It all depends on how the money needs to be divided.

During my first year of university, I decided to obtain a Native Studies degree, and then head to law school. My plan worked. I convocated and then went to law school. Only, soon after I realized I made the wrong choice. Law school wasn’t for me.

I dropped out assuming I could easily transfer to another college. My band’s post-secondary councillor informed me that sadly, it wasn’t so simple. According to my band’s policy manual, a law degree was considered a professional degree, much like a Master’s degree, which is why I got funded for law school.

When I transferred to another undergraduate program, I had to get another student loan. I had to pay for every penny of my second degree myself.

Not every First Nations student gets funded. In fact, it is often very difficult to get funding. My experience was relatively benign compared to stories I’ve heard.  

Every situation is different, but not every high school graduate wants to assume debt with student loans, though most funded students eventually succumb to them, just to make ends meet. I’ve also known a few students, who were usually single, who worked part-time jobs in addition to funding because they received a bare minimum.

Why is it necessary for the government to bother giving First Nations money for education? Because it is a treaty right. The treaties were agreements made by two nations that if First Nations people were to share the land and resources, the government and the Crown would aid in the advancement of First Nations people. However, the intent of the treaties was for two nations to live side by side, not for one nation to dominate the other.

The treaties were signed more than 100 years ago, and yet I’m only the second generation in my family to receive a full education. That is the stark reality of how well the treaties have been honoured.

If you thought Indians had it super easy, and got everything for free, now you know better. I have student loan debt and I’ve had to work very hard for everything I have, which still isn’t much. For the treaties to be honoured the way they were intended, a lot more work is necessary. You can bet the few students who get funded won’t be rolling in money while they pursue an education but it is their right, and this is one way to restore the original intent of the treaties.

Organizations: First Nations, Meadow Lake Tribal Council

Geographic location: Canada

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