Scoring Aboriginal enrolment

On Oct. 5, over 100 high school students from the Grand Erie District school board traveled to Wilfrid Laurier University for a lacrosse tournament at University Stadium. The event was no ordinary sports tournament, however.

The students were from the Six Nations Aboriginal community participating in the High School Friendship Lacrosse Tournament.

They took part in training sessions with members of the Iroquois Nationals Lacrosse Team and the Haudenosaunee National Women’s Lacrosse Team and were given a tour of Laurier’s campus along with appearances from guest speakers.

Organizers of the event hoped that the day would succeed in inspiring the youth to pursue post-secondary education, as well as expose the university to Canada’s Aboriginal population — all while enjoying a distinctly Aboriginal game.

Preserving their game

“[Lacrosse] is something that is traditional to our culture,” said Deneen Montour, native advisor of the Grand Erie District School Board. “It’s a gift that was given to us by our creators.”

At the 2010 World Lacrosse Championship in Manchester, England, the Iroquois national team was invited to play, but were denied entry to the country with their Haudenosaunee passports. Despite efforts to accommodate the team, they were never given the opportunity to participate.

Several commentators on the story remarked that it was like denying a Canadian team the right to play in a hockey tournament.

Many members of that team were present, guiding the young athletes. “I think it’s a great day for them to be able to come here to the campus and experience working with their role models,” said Montour.

Exposing Laurier

Laurier has launched many initiatives to help draw First Nations students’ attention. Programs and curriculum are introducing Aboriginal case studies.

For example, the health sciences department will study diabetes prevalence in Aboriginals.

One health sciences student, Kara Loft, was instrumental in starting Laurier’s Aboriginal Students Association (ASA).

“As a first-year, I didn’t have an Aboriginal Students Association to go to for help,” Loft explained. Though the ASA is a new organization, she sees the group as a potential resource for students in need. “If the younger years are having problems, the older students can help them with that.” Aboriginal students also have their own adviser to assist with course selection and other academic matters.

Loft said that the ASA would help to dispel any misconceptions that people have about Canada’s First Nations.

One of those misconceptions is the idea that all Aboriginal students simply get a “free ride” through university or college at the expense of the government. In fact, funding for post-secondary education for Aboriginal youth was capped in 1996.

With Canada’s Aboriginal population at a steady rise and tuition rates at an all-time high, there is a greater demand for post-secondary education, and not enough funding to go around.

New opportunities

“I believe the ticket towards a better society is through higher education,” said Dr. Andrea East. Dr. East is a graduate of WLU who currently works as a family physician for Six Nations.

East and Montour believe that the event held in a university setting would help the participants to envision themselves in such an environment. “In order for them to see themselves here,” Montour explained, “It was an advantage to have them actually come to the university and play at the Stadium.”

Over half of Aboriginal Canadians are under 25 – evidence of a significant population “boom.” Unfortunately, only 40 per cent of Aboriginal Canadians graduate high school, and less than ten per cent earn university degrees.

Pregnancy rates are also considerably higher among Aboriginal teens according to Health Canada.

East is confident that these statistics can change for the better with the co-operation of high schools and universities and opportunities like the activities held on campus.

Aboriginal education facts:

50%

Percentage of Aboriginal community under the age of 25

40%

High school graduation rate across Aboriginal communities (versus 90 per cent for all Canadians)

27%

Percentage of Canadians who obtain a university degree

4 to 9%

Percentage of Aboriginal Canadians who obtain a university degree

Source: Statistics Canada, 2009

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