By: Scott Haldane and Reeta Roy

This article was originally posted by the Vancouver Sun on October 23, 2017.

When Sheldon Scow recounts his path to a university education, it is a story of tenacity and hard-won courage. A third-year First Nations Studies student at Vancouver Island University, Sheldon dropped out of university twice before returning for a third time.

“I didn’t trust educational institutions and I didn’t trust my professors,” explains Sheldon. “Vancouver Island University awakened my passion for my culture, and every day, I am learning to trust this institution.”

The key to Sheldon’s courage? A broad network of support, including his family and a team of dedicated staff at Vancouver Island University who reinforce his determination to succeed.

Deeply disrupted by Canada’s history of residential schooling, Indigenous learners experience a complex set of obstacles that have widened the gap in postsecondary attainment levels between Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth in Canada. However, as demonstrated by Sheldon’s resiliency — and by the enrollment of thousands of other Indigenous students at colleges and universities across Canada — Indigenous youth are eager for opportunities to learn.

The calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which examined the consequences of Canada’s residential school system, have provided considerable momentum and goodwill for Indigenous and non-Indigenous partners to work together to improve outcomes for Indigenous peoples. As Senator Murray Sinclair, chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, has said, “Education holds the key to reconciliation. It is where our country will heal itself.”

In September, Vancouver Island University and Yukon College announced a new partnership with Rideau Hall Foundation and the Mastercard Foundation that will break trail for this vision of reconciliation.

As we heard again and again from elders, chiefs and students gathered at the Yukon College launch event in Carcross, Indigenous youth have a passion for education anchored in their own cultures and histories. Rooted in the wisdom of elders, the aspirations of youth, and the vision that Indigenous communities hold for themselves, our partnership welcomes Indigenous youth as full partners in their education. It will remove barriers for hundreds more Indigenous learners like Sheldon and support the realization of their dreams for themselves, their families and their communities.

Our partnership is grounded in respect, collaboration, and co-creation. By listening to the voices of Indigenous learners, educators, elders and leaders every step of the way, we will not only strengthen the educational outcomes of Indigenous learners, but will work towards reconciliation benefitting communities and Canada as a whole.

This collective undertaking, we hope, will be a story of new beginnings; a story of partnership, trust-building and hope.

Looking ahead, we will carefully monitor our progress and share our learning broadly. We are collaborating with Indigenous learners and Indigenous communities to incorporate knowledge rooted in their experiences and aspirations. We firmly believe that what is learned from the work being led by Yukon College and Vancouver Island University can inform reconciliation efforts on campuses across Canada. By involving other Indigenous communities and educational institutions in the co-creation process, with support from philanthropic organizations, governments and the private sector, we hope to model solutions that could expand across the country so that many more Indigenous learners will see themselves and their communities reflected in an education that is relevant, meaningful, and supportive to them.

“Our youth nurtured to learn is healing medicine for us,” Vancouver Island University Elder-in-Residence Gary Manson told the audience assembled in Nanaimo for the VIU launch event. A leader from the Snuneymuxw First Nation and a survivor of residential school trauma, Elder Gary has been instrumental in the development of this learning partnership. By co-creating programs driven by the voice of Indigenous communities, we — with Yukon College and Vancouver Island University — can create a vision of universities and colleges where the children and grandchildren of Elder Gary, and other residential school survivors like him, will proudly learn, share, and thrive.

Scott Haldane is president and CEO of the Rideau Hall Foundation; Reeta Roy is president and CEO of the Mastercard Foundation.