One of the first questions I receive when I tell people that I’m First Nations is, “Do you receive free education?”
My answer’s usually a stunned, quiet non-answer, followed by a quick subject change. Later, I wonder where people get the nerve to ask such a personal question — one that can trigger to many indigenous students. I don’t inquire into other students’ financial situations, yet people feel entitled to inquire into mine.
This myth that all Canadian indigenous people get “free rides” from the government harms the integrity of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people, because it’s exactly that: a myth. Yes, some of us receive government-funded education; many of us do not. Thousands of non-status and non-registered indigenous people self-identify and don’t receive a dime.
This is where scholarships are important. Just like every other struggling student at SFU, many indigenous students go to great lengths to pay their tuition; scholarships and bursaries help curb this burden. For many years, SFU scholarship applications didn’t require status/Métis cards or other documentation to “prove” identity claims. A simple letter from the Indigenous Student Centre sufficed.
As of this fall 2016 semester, SFU requires students to provide “acceptable proof” of heritage in order to complete their applications. The university now requests a copy of a status/Métis card, a copy of a parent’s card, or a letter from the applicant’s band or self-governing First Nations community. This change completely excludes self-identified people who are non-status or non-registered.
Out of all the cultures in Canada, indigenous people are the only ones who are consistently required to prove their identities. “What percentage are you?” or “Do you have a status card?” are routinely asked, as if blood quantum or government documentation are the only indicators of cultural richness.
By requiring documentation to access resources allocated for indigenous people, universities create a hierarchy of who is the most “authentic” and who is less so. Those who cannot produce said documentation are not only excluded from the resources, but must also deal with the emotional toil of being rejected from one’s own culture.
Ethnic fraud isn’t so rampant that it’s worth turning away self-identified indigenous students. It’s unacceptable for an indigenous person’s identity to face distrust from the very institution which imparts their education. Having one’s identity scrutinized over lack of “acceptable proof” directly violates indigenous people’s rights as self-determining people.
Thankfully, following an outcry from concerned students, the university has put this request of supporting documentation on hold to further investigate its unintended consequences. It’s important that SFU sees this issue through, and changes their administrative practice to include all indigenous students.
The University of Manitoba is an excellent example of accepting self-identified students. Students can easily access a self-determining document to fill out on their Indigenous Student Centre webpage. I recommend SFU follows suit and refrains from imposing requirements that impinge on self-identifying indigenous students’ access to education.
SFU has committed to promoting reconciliation with its indigenous people within the community. It’s not a straightforward, easy process, but some steps are as simple as providing access to scholarships and bursaries to self-identifying indigenous people. This is an excellent opportunity for SFU to demonstrate that it takes this seriously, and is willing to reconcile with us and demonstrate that we’re vital members of the SFU community.