Indspire: Post Secondary Education and the Canadian Aboriginal Peoples

By Samantha Gee

Canada… a country admired across the globe. According to the 2015 annual survey conducted by the Reputation Institute, Canada was ranked #1 in terms of the "best reputation” among developed nations around the world (Elliot, 2015).

Fernando Prado, a representative from The Reputation Institute's says that Canada offers "something good" in many categories evaluated in the survey. "We all love Canada because of several things," Prado told CTV Canada. In particular, Prado praised Canada for its "effective government," "absence of corruption," "friendly and welcoming people" and “welfare support system” (Elliot, 2015).

But Canada isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. In fact, we have quite a dark and troubling past when it comes to the Canadian Aboriginal peoples. The First Nations peoples of Canada have endured great oppression and violence at the hands of the Canadian government. And, understandably, the mass cultural genocide that the Aboriginal Canadians experienced has left long lasting scars on their communities.

Residential schools specifically have left a legacy of trauma and substance abuse in the Canadian aboriginal community causing high unemployment rates and substandard living conditions. The aboriginal population in Canada is currently characterized by having low socio-economic and health standards compared to non-Aboriginal Canadians.In fact, living conditions found on reserves in Canada are comparable to third world countries. Right here in Canada, our Indigenous community is living in such poverty that the suicide rates on reserves are insanely high. According “to a 2000 report from the Canadian Institute of Health, suicides among First Nations youth were about five to six times higher than non-aboriginal youth in Canada” (Tahirali, 2016).

So this begs the question, if the Indigenous population is living in such dire and sub-standard conditions, and it’s the direct result of past government policies, is Canada so great after all?

There have been several initiatives by the Canadian government to apologize and attempts to compensate for mistreating the Aboriginal peoples but nothing can eradicate the past and the lasting effect it has had on aboriginal communities.

In order for the Aboriginal peoples of Canada to increase their standard of life, they need the necessary skills to succeed in Canada’s growing economy. The unemployment rate of Aboriginal Canadians is much higher compared with the rest of Canadians. And the education attainment rate of Aboriginal Canadians is also much lower compared with the rest of the Canadian population.

So putting two and two together, given the statistic that unemployment decreases with each level of education attainment, it becomes clear that what the Aboriginal population needs is higher levels of education. And with the current system of post-secondary education assistance provided by the government, this need for education is not being facilitated.

Making it possible for any Aboriginal Canadian to attend a post secondary institution should be Canada’s passion project.

As Canadians, we should all know the story. But if you somehow missed the huge cultural genocide, ill try and fill you in. Even giving a brief history of colonization and what it did to the aboriginal peoples of Canada would take too long for this podcast, but I do have time to acknowledge the forced assimilation and displacement they experienced.

Essentially, Aboriginal Canadians had to deal with strangers invading their home, colonializing and laying claim to the land that Indigenous population have lived on for generations, without regard for anyone who was already living there. Not only were the First Nations communities displaced and dispossessed by Europeans, but they were also told they had to change their entire way of life. Assimilation policies were implemented and forcefully encouraged. Children were stolen from their parents and stuck in schools where they were severely abused in order to make them more “Canadian”. On top of all this, Europeans diseases had wiped out about half of the Aboriginal population.

Eventually, the Canadian government realized what hey were doing was wrong and treaty agreements became more fair. But this process took way too long. Several studies have indicated that low educational attainment levels among Indigenous peoples in Canada are tied to colonialism (Gordon & White, 2014).

Its true, agreements made with the government of Canada state that access to education is a treaty right. And this has led to the widely-held assumption that all Canadian First Nations people receive free post secondary education. This is an urban myth.

While there are government programs set up to provide financial assistance for Aboriginal Canadian citizens who want to attend a post secondary institution, it seems that the need for funds exceeds what is made available from the government. Serinda Baptiste, “a band councillor at Little Pine First Nation, Sask., said the band can fund approximately 15-23 students each year — but has to turn away about 30 applications” (Monkman, 2016).

And its not like the current government isn’t aware that the funding is inadequate. Prime Minister Traudeau promised to increase funding for Canada’s “Post-Secondary Student Support Program” while running for election (Mckenna 2016). So far, Trudeau has done nothing to fulfil this promise. Which is a shame. Given the circumstances of how we treated the Aboriginal peoples in this country, if they said “jump” we should be saying “how high?”.

The fact is, while education costs have risen and the aboriginal population has increased, the amount of government funding has been fixed and unable to keep. What is known as the “2% funding cap” is the main cause of the lack of funding. This means that each year the Canadian government can only increase the Post-Secondary Education Assistance Program funding by 2%.

Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada has admitted that “PSSSP student support levels fall below the allowances set for other Canadians under the Canada Student Loans Program,” and that “guidelines for PSSSP student living allowances were 14 years out of date” (Popovic, 2011).

Now its not all bad news for Aboriginal people who require financial assistance to attain post secondary education. An organization that has risen to compensate for the governments inadequate funding is Indspire. According to the government of Canada, “Indspire is an Indigenous-led charity that invests in the education of Indigenous people for the long-term benefit of these individuals, their families and communities and Canada” (Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, 2016). Supplementary programs such as Indspire are needed in order for more Aboriginal students to be able to compete post secondary school.

Aboriginal people tend to face more barriers in attaining post secondary education than non-aboriginal Canadians due to their troubled past. In 2013, Vianne Timmons, President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Regina, wrote an article where she explored the how Aboriginal post secondary students perceived their own barriers to post secondary education.

According to Timmons, “post-secondary education achievement is positively related to health standards, employment income, and many other quality-of-life factors for Aboriginal people”. This is important First Nations have relatively high incarceration rates, infant mortality rates, and high school drop-out rates, higher rates of smoking, alcohol, and drug abuse, and have a disproportionate burden of ill-health (Gordon & White, 2014). Indspire therefore is not only investing in Aboriginal students education but also their health and well being.

After talking to the students, Timmons found that funding was the greatest perceived issue. This article also identifies accessibility, racism or prejudice, and the transition from their small communities as barriers to post secondary education. Many of the students in this study were motivated to pursue post secondary education because they thought they would have a better chance at “being successful,” giving back to their communities, and influencing other young people to at least finish high school.

As mentioned before, with each increasing level of education attainment the rate of unemployment decreases. According to Charity Intelligence Canada, based on data gathered from 1,248 students who received funding from Inspire “between 2000-2001 and 2012-2013, 93% of previous recipients graduated from their post-secondary education program and 82% of these graduates are employed” (“Indspire,” 2016). That’s 20% more than the employment rate reported among the general Aboriginal population in the 2011 National Household Survey which was 62.5 %.

Now by this point in the podcast you probably understand why the Aboriginal peoples of Canada deserve free access to post secondary education and the barriers they face in attaining it. The government has failed to follow through with their promises of trying to atone for their sins. This is a huge ethical problem for the Canadian Government. But this is not just an Aboriginal problem, this is also a problem that effects all Canadians.

Right now, many Aboriginal people live beneath the poverty line because there are high unemployment rates in their communities. Joe Friesen, a demographics reporter for the Globe and Mail, captures the current situation perfectly. He writes: “Over the next 10 years, aboriginal young people will make up a significant portion of new entrants in the labour market. Whether they enter as skilled workers with post-secondary qualifications or as high-school dropouts will have an impact on Canada’s economy” (Friesen, 2013).

Essentially, in coming years, the will be job shortages and the Aboriginal peoples growing population remains to be a largely untapped resource for labour. The Canadian economy would benefit if these people e had the opportunity to be educated and trained. Indspire’s investment into Aboriginal post secondary education attainment is an investment into the Canadian economy.

From what I understand, only good can come from supporting the Canadian Aboriginal peoples in attaining higher levels of education. There is no reason that in a country so privileged as Canada, that we should have our igneous population living in poverty. There is so many things wrong with the current situation.

No longer should the First Nations people of Canada be in living in substandard conditions. And a clear way to success is through post secondary education. It is genuinely not the Aboriginals peoples fault that they cannot personally afford post secondary education  . Their low economic status is the result of generations of oppression.   

Obviously, the Canadian government needs step up and take responsibility for their lack funding and Aboriginal education attainment should be more of a priority. In the meantime, Indspire is doing what the Canadian government is failing to do.

I think the best thing about Indspire is that it is indigenous-led organization based in Toronto. It shows just how much the Aboriginal peoples of Canada want to succeed.

This is a distinctly Canadian passion project. It’s a Canadian problem involving Canadian people. Although most of the damage has already been done, we can all still help. We need to publicly debunk the myth that all aboriginal people in Canada are receiving free tuition. An increased awareness would definitely put the government in an awkward situation. I'm sure they don’t want people knowing that they don’t keep promises or sufficiently help Canadians who are in need.


Canada, Government of Canada, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. (2016, February 23). Post-secondary Education. Retrieved October 27, 2016, from

Elliot, J. (2015, July 15). Canada ranked as 'most admired' country in the world: Report. Retrieved December 08, 2016, from

Friesen, J. (2013, October 07). Widening education gap leaves aboriginal Canadians further behind. Retrieved October 26, 2016, from

Gordon, C. E., & White, J. P. (2014). Indigenous Educational Attainment in Canada. The International Indigenous Policy Journal5(3), 6.

McKenna, C. (2016, March 22). Liberals break $200 million promise to post-secondary First Nation students [Online news article]. Retrieved November 2, 2016, from

Monkman, L. (2016, January 29). Debunking the myth that all First Nations people receive free post-secondary education. Retrieved October 26, 2016, from

Popovic, T. (2011). Effecting Change Through Education: Aboriginal Students in Ontario's Post-secondary Education System. College Student Alliance.Canada, Government of Canada, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. (2016, February 23). Post-secondary Education. Retrieved October 27, 2016, from

Tahirali, M. S. (2016, April 11). Suicide among Canada's First Nations: Key numbers. Retrieved December 08, 2016, from

Timmons, V. (2013). ABORIGINAL STUDENTS' PERCEPTIONS OF POST-SECONDARY SUCCESS INITIATIVES. The Canadian Journal of Native Studies, 33(1), 231-237. 

Recommendations for Further Reading


Timmons, V. (2013). Aboriginal students' perceptions of post-secondary success initiatives. The Canadian Journal of Native Studies

Education as a Social Determinant of First Nations, Inuit and Métis Health: National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Health


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