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Mount Royal University launches ‘indigenization’ plan in light of growing aboriginal enrolment

“We want to cultivate a respectful and welcoming environment that will prevail over the legacy of colonization."

Social work student Dwight Farahat and John Fischer, director of the Iniskim Centre, at Mount Royal University.

Jennifer Friesen/Metro

Social work student Dwight Farahat and John Fischer, director of the Iniskim Centre, at Mount Royal University.

To some young indigenous students, the thought of going to university still seems unattainable – something Dwight Farahat hopes Mount Royal University's newly drafted plan to "indigenize" will help change.

"I feel like it's going to encourage young aboriginal people to see university as a possibility as a place where they feel welcome,"Farahat said. "It's going to break down barriers."

A mature student from the Siksika Nation with Welsh and Palestinian heritage, Farahat is half way through his undergraduate degree in social work at MRU, but far from the end of his educational and career goals; he is now contemplating a masters degree.

"When I was 15, it was a complete impossibility," he said.

Indigenous-identified individuals have been on the rise in post secondary institutions for years.

At MRU, the number of students identifying as aboriginal has risen from 519 in 2009-2010 to 567 in 2014-2015, while their proportion of the total study body has grown even faster.

In the 2014-15 year, self-identifying aboriginal students made up 4.4 per cent of the total MRU student body, up from 3.4 per cent five years earlier.

With a goal to bring the population of self-declared aboriginal students up to seven per cent by 2024-2025, the school is rolling out an aboriginal strategic plan, hoping to continue and cement work they've been doing for decades.

"We want to cultivate a respectful and welcoming environment that will prevail over the legacy of colonization," said John Fischer, director of the Iniskim Centre at MRU. "We have been doing this work, it's not a beginning, it's in a continuation."

The plan outlines five main goals: creating culturally respectful research, bridge building with indigenous education stakeholders, looking at the supports MRU has and what they want to bring in, and respectful curriculum and pedagogy.

"I think it's really important we indigenize the university to make people feel comfortable, to make others more aware because it benefits us all," Farahat said.

He was involved in one of the many student and faculty-run councils to draft the plan.

Farahat hopes the school will be able to invest in a full-time recruiter who's sole focus is prospective indigenous students.

"They could really tell their personal story to the youth on the ground ... at powwows, at events where all the youth are, going into schools, in different programs and just really being out there and engaged and giving those personal invites," he said, adding for some aboriginal youth a straight out of high school, post-secondary education is still considered a "far out" thought.

Aboriginal post-secondary enrolment growing across Alberta

Provincially, the number of aboriginal students in post-secondary education has shot up by about 70 per cent since the province began tracking numbers in the 2004/05 school year.

Fischer said aboriginals have long been the fastest-growing population in Alberta and in Canada.

“With the limitations on post-secondary funding, students coming straight out of high school are getting priority,” Fischer said. “That will also contribute to additional an increase in the number of aboriginal students.”

He added many schools are in the process of "indigenization" to find better ways to accommodate this growing population of students.

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