An Oakville Church is making a difference for First Nations’ Communities

Why should non native Canadians support a scholarship for First Nations’ students as a response to the Truth and Reconciliation Committee Report submitted by Justice Murray Sinclair?

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An Oakville Church is making a difference for First Nations’ Communities
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About the Author

Reverend Dr. Morar Murray-Hayes

Reverend Dr. Morar Murray-Hayes

The Reverend Dr. Morar Murray-Hayes is the Minister of Maple Grove United Church, and is a member of the Interfaith Councill of Halton. A chatty extrovert with a conversational preaching style, a multi-tasker who is a “multi-worrier” when it comes to caring about people’s problems, and a leader who treasures teaming with the lay people in her church, Morar says that at Maple Grove she has experienced “a deeper level of ministry than I thought possible.” Anyone who has personally received Morar’s deeply compassionate caring and wise counsel will testify to what an inspirational, healing and encouraging ministry it is.

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An Interview with Dr. Pierre Zundel, President of the University of Sudbury, a Federated University of Laurentian University by Sandra Onufryk, chair of the Outreach Committee of Maple Grove United Church

Onufryk:
Most of the questions I will be asking are those people have asked me. They are not all easy questions, but I know you will have good answers that will help us to understand what this kind of helps means to First Nations students.

Cyndil Corbiere, a second year student at the University of Sudbury is receiving a scholarship of $7500 per year from Maple Grove United Church for the final 3 years of her degree. I have heard that 80 % of aboriginal students are not able to complete first year of university. How are you addressing this so that more students are positioned for success like this student?

Cyndil Corbiere, M’Chigeeng First Nation receives Maple Grove United Church’s First Nations Scholarship from Dr. Pierre Zundel, President and Vice-Chancellor, University of Sudbury.

Zundel:
Challenges for aboriginal students like her include:
the transition from high school work to university courses;
and the transition from home to living away from home. Many students have not been outside of their home communities and some of their communities are very remote.

Onufryk:
Many Canadians believe post-secondary aboriginal students already receive money for tuition, books, travel, food, shelter and transportation from the government. Is this true? If so why do they need more money to help them attend university?

Zundel:
Some get all they need, some get part, some get none. The federal government transfers the money to the first nations communities. One of the challenges is that in 1995 the government froze the growth of the fund to 2% while the cost of university is going up by 12% from last year to next year (according to the CBC). There is an enormous shortfall of up to $800 000 000 a year. Individual bands decide whether to give all to a few qualified students or some to more students. The University of Sudbury gives $140 000 in student aid; demand is up 20% over last year.

Onufryk:
I understand students need to apply directly to their bands to access the government money and that this creates problems for aboriginals living off the reserve or without connections to powerful reserve leaders. Is this true?

Zundel:
It depends on the band. There are about 170 first nations communities and they each develop their own policies. Some communities (Attawapiskat is one) do give funding for education to off-reserve students.

Onufryk:
How are relations between the federal government and First Nations?

Zundel:
I suspect that they are at a low ebb. Each band has to account how the money is given out. Compliance is enormously complicated and time consuming.

Onufryk:
Can providing more money be construed as just more paternalism and add to the problem rather than resolve it?

Zundel:
Students are able to choose their own courses, to plan their own futures and determine their own dreams. Past efforts, e.g. residential schools removed children from their families, communities, languages and cultures. The idea of the Maple Grove Scholarship is unique in that you are making a contribution without exerting control over what courses the student pursues.

Onufryk:
We have some pockets of underprivileged families living in Oakville and the children do not have special access to government funds (other than student loans). Some of our congregation feel we should focus on our own community. Why is it so important to help indigenous people?

Zundel:
I believe the overwhelming social problem in Canada is our native communities. The conditions on reserves in education and housing is worse than many developing countries. Western white society created many of the problems for aboriginal communities.
When they can access education, they are able to take the jobs that are presently held by people from outside their communities. We see the leadership our graduates are offering in their own communities. The need and potential for doing good is immense.

Onufryk:
My grandfather was a Barnardo child, brought over to Canada from the UK to provide essentially slave labour to a farmer who abused him. He eventually escaped and was able to make a good life for himself. Why can’t First Nations folk do the same?

Zundel:
It costs $1000 to fly from Attawapiskat to Timmins. Even if a teen can afford that and leaves to seek a better life, he or she arrives with no trade, and ends up homeless and hopeless on the streets of Timmins or Sudbury or Toronto. My father was an immigrant too: he was white, skilled, and sought after. There are not many employers who seek out native teens in Sudbury today.

Onufryk:
Do many aboriginal students work in the summer or at part time jobs as most of our congregation have and as our children have done?

Zundel:
Some do find jobs. For a student from a remote community,who is likely a 27 year old woman with two kids, there are a lot of obstacles.

Onufryk:
It appears that many students pursue Indigenous Studies. Does it make a difference what they study as long as they become leaders and role models for their communities? Should they be encouraged to study nursing, medicine, law or business because that would provide more direct practical benefit?

Zundel:
That is in fact what happens. Students study in many areas in the university. They may take elective courses in Indigenous Studies. When we first offered the Indigenous Studies program, most of the students were First Nations. But now 50% of students in Indigenous Studies are not First Nations. One of our graduates from last year is a member of Maple Grove United Church.

Onufryk:
What percentage of indigenous students at the University of Sudbury finish their degree?

Zundel:
While the national statistic is nearer to 20%, 96% of students at the University of are graduating.

Onufryk:
Is enrollment Increasing in the Indigenous Studies program?

Zundel:
Yes, from both indigenous and and non indigenous students.

Onufryk:
How is our scholarship making the recipient’s life better?

Zundel:
She is able to concentrate on her studies without worrying about how she will make next month’s rent. And this has given her a strong sense of confidence and determination. When she received the scholarship, she said, “I will never give up.”

Onufryk:
There must be many reasons why so few aboriginals go on in school. I know there was a Royal Commission on this topic a number of years ago. What do you think are the top reasons? What can be done to address this problem?

Zundel:
There was a Royal Commission. sadly, its recommendations were never adopted.

One reason is that federal funding is substantially below provincial funding at every level of native education.

Most teachers in indigenous schools are young, non-native, new graduates. They stay for two years and move on when they get a ‘better’ school. They are replaced by new inexperienced teachers.

The poverty and racism of the residential schools. There are no models in the home of how to move into post secondary education.

All these factors mean lower high school graduation rates and fewer go on.

Onufryk:
Should we be working on encouraging basic education at a younger age instead?

Zundel:
Most students don’t go straight through from high school to university. By supporting the university education of one student you are giving hope and a role model to future generations.

Onufryk:
Can you provide us with some anecdotes about how post secondary education enhances the lives not only of the student but their families and community?

Zundel:
As I visit our grads I find them working as educational counsellors, band managers, chiefs. They are improving the governance of their bands.

Last winter I was in Moose Factory to visit one of our transitional year programs where students complete their whole first year in their own community. I asked the students, “what does this program mean for you?”

A young woman with three children responded, “for me to leave to study, would mean taking my children away from their grandparents, who are teaching them Cree and their culture.”
A middle aged member of the Moose Cree council said that she now understood the Indian Act and was better able to develop policy and good governance. Then she said, “but the fact that I can study and hope to succeed means that the nephews and nieces I am raising have hope of the same thing — which just may be enough to keep them alive.”

Onufryk:
Dr. Zundel, I think what you have said will enhance our understanding of the many problems aboriginals face in trying to achieve a higher education. I can see that not only will this help to make one person’s life better but it will enhance the lives of the whole aboriginal community.

Please extend our greetings to our scholarship recipient and tell her that we wish her well in her academic pursuits and future plans.

To make a difference, donations to the First Nations Scholarship can be made here.

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