There’s good reason why colleges and institutes across Canada are the primary access point to post-secondary education for First Nations, Inuit, and Métis learners. In addition to our extensive geographical reach and success in preparing learners for rewarding careers, we are deeply rooted in our local communities and it is in our DNA to respond to these local contexts. We are deeply committed to working in close partnership with our local Indigenous communities to remove barriers to education, promote a culture of respect and inclusion, and advance reconciliation.
We truly believe that people shouldn’t be required to leave their community to pursue post-secondary education. Did you know that over 95% of all Canadians and more than 86% of Indigenous people live within 50 km of a college or institute? This proximity and access to post-secondary education is unique in Canada. It means learners can get the training and skills they need to thrive close to home. In fact, a number of colleges and institutes like Cambrian College in Ontario, Red River College in Manitoba, and Yukon College, to name just a few, bring specialized training to remote communities thanks to fully equipped mobile classrooms.
The unique presence of colleges and institutes in northern and remote communities, in addition to urban centres, allows us to forge strong partnerships with Indigenous communities across Canada. Curricula are developed that respect Indigenous values and cultures and together we have created over 300 credential programs (certificates, diplomas, bachelor’s degrees, and postgraduate certificates) tailored to meet the needs of Indigenous learners and communities. Additionally, of our 140-plus members, seven are designated Indigenous institutions whose primary focus is delivering programs to preserve and strengthen Indigenous cultures.
Providing learners with culturally relevant programs and spaces helps foster a feeling of safety and inclusion which increases the likelihood of learner success. Colleges and institutes are committed to removing barriers to education through specialized resource centres and services. Indigenous learners are offered a range of tailored wraparound supports to promote their success. This could include academic advising and peer support networks; on-campus Indigenous Elders; cultural and spiritual activities; gathering places for Indigenous students; dedicated funding and resources such as daycare, housing, food, and family services to offset the costs associated with their education.
For example, Sheridan College’s Centre for Indigenous Learning and Support is a safe and inclusive space meant to encourage all students to maintain their cultural identity while studying. New students can connect to a peer mentor to ease the transition into college life. The college has an Elder in Residence who provides support, guidance, and teachings. Students can also receive support with their college applications, portfolios, and accessing financial aid.
More and more colleges are developing spaces like these that reflect Indigenous ways of learning and knowing and that support current and future students. They are also prioritizing Indigenous education to ensure all faculty, staff, and students learn more about the Indigenous cultures of Canada. Over 65 institutions have signed our Indigenous Education Protocol to make Indigenous education a clear priority for the entire institution. This includes strengthening relationships with Indigenous communities, increasing the number of Indigenous staff, and including Indigenous knowledge in curricula and learning approaches. The protocol consists of seven principles to support reconciliation and aligns closely with the recommendations issued by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015, though it was launched in 2014.
Colleges and institutes are also involved in revitalizing and protecting Indigenous languages – such an important part of culture and identity. According to UNESCO, three of every four Indigenous languages in Canada are critically or severely endangered. This is the tragic result of assimilation policies, systemic discrimination, and government-sponsored residential schools. Languages represent generations of accumulated traditional knowledge and ways of knowing and it brings me great joy to say that 23 Indigenous languages are being taught at colleges and institutes across the country. That includes language-specific programs as well as language courses that are part of other programs about Indigenous cultures, truth and reconciliation, and more.
For example, at Nicola Valley Institute of Technology, Indigenous language training includes options of a one-year Language Certificate, a two-year Language Diploma and a three-year Advanced Diploma in Indigenous Language Teaching. These programs encourage learners to begin speaking, practicing, and teaching their respective languages.
In addition to providing Indigenous learners with an accessible, inclusive, and culturally relevant learning environment, colleges and institutes offer quality programs that meet a wide range of needs. We provide diverse and flexible learning options including diplomas and degrees, post-graduate certificates, microcredentials, as well as part-time, online, hybrid, and accelerated programs, with many different pathway options. Learners can access over 10,000 job-focused credentials geared towards a broad range of students, from recent high school graduates to adult learners and university graduates, in a way that works for them.
We also know that it’s hard to take any time away from the labour market when you are providing for yourself and potentially other family members. It’s important to make the most time in education, so, we offer career-oriented programs that enable graduates to transition to employment quickly and effectively. We are the leaders in providing work-integrated learning opportunities such as co-ops, apprenticeships, and internships. Learners at colleges and institutes receive employment-focused skills needed to thrive immediately in the workforce and get to further refine them with work experiences as part of their education.
Furthermore, as the main provider of adult education and upskilling programs, we help break down barriers to post-secondary education for those with non-traditional learning pathways. This is important for Indigenous people since many leave secondary education before graduating. The percentage of Indigenous men and women aged 25-64 without a high school diploma stands at 26%, more than twice that of non-Indigenous Canadians (11%). Given this, we are very proud of the fact that the percentage of Indigenous people with a college diploma is on par with non-Indigenous people at 23%.
Colleges and institutes are also a top choice for Indigenous learners because of our cutting-edge programs designed in collaboration with employers, ready to meet labour market demands. Our strong ties to our local communities extend to nearby business and industry. Our mandate to support the social and economic development of the communities and regions we serve ensures an integrated approach to preparing learners for local employment. This means learners graduate ready to hit the ground running in their community.
As vital community hubs, we develop programs that respond to the current and emerging needs of the labour market. Faculty come from industry and each program has an advisory committee of local employers that helps develop and update curricula, ensuring graduates have the necessary knowledge and skills to succeed in the workplace.
Colleges and institutes equip learners for full participation in a rapidly changing economy – we future proof our learners, and in so doing, future proof our communities’ economies. We have an extensive reach with a unique presence in northern and remote communities and our wide range of programs provide flexible learning opportunities that are tailored to local markets. Our focus on work-integrated learning and career-oriented programs gets learners prepared for the workplace and ready to earn quickly. We are proud to bring this value as the primary access point to post-secondary education for First Nations, Inuit, and Métis learners. Our commitment to reducing barriers to education, promoting a culture of respect and inclusion, and advancing reconciliation, is core to who we are.
By Denise Amyot, CEO and President, Colleges and Institutes Canada