For a couple of decades now, Concordia University in Montreal has been fostering a plan to decolonize and indigenize the university, celebrate different knowledges and ground its actions in the values of equity, diversity, inclusion and accessibility. That plan began with the establishment in 1992 of what is today the Otsenhákta Student Centre, an on-campus resource for First Nations, Inuit and Métis students that’s name translates to “near the fire.”
With the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report in December 2015, the 50-year-old university looked at Indigenous education with new urgency. It began building out a formal roadmap — Indigenous Directions Action Plan — to provide a pathway to a more equitable and inclusive future for First Nations, Inuit and Métis students in 2019.
This fall, Concordia will welcome the first cohort to its Kaié:ri Nikawerà:ke Indigenous Bridging Program, which translates from the Kanien’kéha language to the four winds, or directions. The program aims to offer Indigenous students who don’t meet Concordia’s traditional admission requirements a pathway to achieve a degree in a field of study in math and science, such as engineering.
Photo: Manon Tremblay, Senior Director of Indigenous Directions at Concordia University
Scotiabank is investing $1.4 million over five years to Campaign for Concordia: Next-Gen Now to help Indigenous and international students succeed. The partnership is part of ScotiaRISE, the Bank’s 10-year, $500-million initiative to promote economic resilience among disadvantaged groups. The money will be used to fund the engagement of full- and part-time personnel and five entrance bursaries a year for The Indigenous Bridging Program. It will also provide funding for the Career Roadmap for International Student Excellence (C-RISE), a platform that helps international students forge successful careers in Canada after graduation.
“Through ScotiaRISE, we are proud to partner with Concordia University to help remove barriers to graduation and provide critical support so that disadvantaged youth from all walks of life can access opportunities and successfully plan for their futures,” said Sophia Doulaghsingh, Scotiabank’s Director for Community Partnerships, Social Impact. “Helping provide students with the support they need to succeed in their post-secondary education is key to building a more equitable and inclusive future for all.”
In its report, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was established by the federal government to facilitate reconciliation among former students at Indian Residential Schools, their families, their communities and all Canadians, delivered 94 calls to action. The report prompted Canada’s universities, in collaboration with Indigenous communities, soon after, to set down 13 principles that would lay the groundwork for building a better future for Indigenous Peoples.
Concordia’s action plan is a guide for students and staff to re-evaluate its curriculum through the lens of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. The way forward would entail thinking differently — relying less on a Eurocentric way of learning and becoming more aware of Indigenous knowledge systems and traditions.
Two years into the plan, it was clear it fell short in removing barriers to post-secondary education for Indigenous students around the math and science courses required for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programs. Concordia conceived the idea for a program that would provide Indigenous students with the skills they need to succeed in STEM-related education and careers.
There is a role for the program to play in Concordia’s plans to decolonize curriculum and there’s going to be a lot of work put into the teaching and learning part
“In the enthusiasm of that first iteration there were a couple of recommendations we missed,” Manon Tremblay, Concordia’s Senior Director of Indigenous Directions, explains. “One was how we as a university could step up to help potential students who may not have the prerequisites to get into post-secondary education because of a variety of situations.”
In many remote communities in Quebec, a lack of teachers means certain courses are not offered, and many students are unable to complete their high school diploma and move on to Collège d'enseignement général et professionnel (CEGEP) or university, Tremblay noted.
In its pilot year, the program will provide students looking to pursue a Bachelor of Engineering (BEng) degree from the Gina Cody School of Engineering with courses designed by the Student Success Centre to help them complete the prerequisite math and sciences curriculum and build their capacity for academic success in writing, study skills and time management. They will also learn soft skills to help them budget their money and navigate living in Montreal.
Tremblay noted that Concordia plans to expand the program to other STEM departments. It also hopes to reach a point where the program is attracting enough students for it to design course sections specific to Indigenous students.
“There is a role for the program to play in Concordia’s plans to decolonize curriculum and there’s going to be a lot of work put into the teaching and learning part. Indigenous students don’t necessarily learn in the same way as the average Canadian, so we may want to adapt teaching methods to do more interactive learning, such as moving outside to convey some of the science concepts,” she said.
The Indigenous Bridging Program also gives students access to the Otsenhákta Student Centre, which can provide anything from one-on-one weekly check-ins to helping students connect to other resources on campus or find financial aid or bursaries. It is also a space where Indigenous students can come together and find community.
Photo: Mariah St. Germain, Coordinator of Indigenous Student Success, Otsenhákta Student Centre
“I strive to make a warm and welcoming environment for students — their home away from home,” Mariah St. Germain, Coordinator of Indigenous Student Success at the Otsenhákta Student Centre at Concordia, said. “I want to make sure they know that they have someone who supports them while they go through this transition and try to find success.”
Coming from an Indigenous way of life where community is the centerpiece of their identity, culture, and language to a university can be overwhelming, she said. “Whether they are First Nations, Métis, or Inuit, being able to share their culture and traditions at the centre gives them a sense of pride and community.”
Concordia’s Action Plan and Indigenous Bridging Program are not solely about helping individual students access post-secondary education, Tremblay said. They are also about investing in the future of Indigenous communities. Indigenous students tend to choose programs that help them make sense of their place in this world and reinvest in their communities, she noted.
“Each graduate that comes out of a program like this and then is admitted into the program of their choice, has a strong potential to become leaders in the social economic development of their communities,” Tremblay said.