CanadaSocial Issues

Closing the Post-Secondary Education Gap: Indigenous Funding Myths

The disproportionate low amount of Indigenous students in higher education across Canada highlights worrisome concerns regarding the government and academic institutions’ role in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action. The call to action plan recognizes the education gap between Indigenous students and non-Indigenous students and aim to close it through reconciliation, resources, and awareness. Currently, 48.4% of Indigenous individuals hold a post-secondary qualification whereas 64.7% of non-indigenous students hold a post-secondary qualification.

Such limitations like lack of tuition funding and Indigenous cultural and historic knowledge in higher education can possibly impact the next generation of Indigenous professionals, which could hinder the growth of Indigenous participation within education and work institutions. The effects of limited tuition funding and lack of Indigenous curriculum contributes to a lower level of educational success amongst Indigenous students, which ultimately affects Indigenous prosperity. This article aims to bring light to the wide educational gap between Indigenous and non Indigenous post-secondary students which highly stems from financial lack while debunking government funding tuition myths. 

The nearly 20% educational gap between Indigenous students and non-Indigenous students illuminates the Truth and Reconciliation Call to Action: Education 10.i where it states:

“We call on the federal government to draft new Aboriginal education legislation with the full participation and informed consent of Aboriginal peoples. The new legislation would include a commitment to sufficient funding and would incorporate the following principles:

  1. Providing sufficient funding to close identified educational achievement gaps within one generation.”

Call to Action 10.i aims to debunk the common belief that all Indigenous people in Canada receive free post-secondary education. However, the reality is much more complicated than that. Ivana Yellowback who is from the Manito Sipi First Nation is an Indigenous student studying at the University of Winnipeg in Manitoba. Yellowback explains to the CBC “Education is a treaty right, and we were supposed to all get education, but because of the Indian Act and the implementation of the funding we’re under, it’s not possible”.

Closing the Post-Secondary Education Gap: Indigenous Funding Myths

Figure 1 Turner, Peter. “Principal Support of Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action: The Importance of Relationality and Reciprocity”. (Image Source: Canadian Association of Principals)

To understand why the Call to Action plan urges government officials to provide sufficient funding to end the identified education gap highlighted above, it’s important to analyze how the Indian Act restricts funding for Indigenous students, ultimately affecting their education. The two percent First Nations Funding Cap, a budget for annual increases, was first enforced by the Liberal government in 1996, placing a 2% financial limit for government department Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada.  According to the CBC, many Indigenous individuals say the “sting of the cap was most felt in education funding”. Although the cap is working to be lifted, there has been no changes to the lack of funding for Indigenous students in higher education. The CBC highlights the key limitations in funding for Indigenous students include:

  •  The high demand for funding far exceeds the amount of money bands receive for post-secondary education, meaning many aspiring students are turned away.

  • Students who receive funding often face strict conditions such as reapplying to their band every year, maintaining a specific grade point average, upholding a career outline, attending every class without excuses and taking at least four courses per semester. Additionally, students who miss a class or fail a class must wait a minimum of two years before reapplying.

  • Funding priorities often go to newly graduated high school students, then students continuing their undergraduate degrees, then Master’s students, then individuals who wish to return to school after a hiatus.

  • Funding does not cover all costs, often leaving Indigenous students in difficult financial situations or having to work while studying a full course load to maintain the funding they did receive.

Closing the Post-Secondary Education Gap: Indigenous Funding Myths

Figure 2 Lynn, Josh. “First Nations chief calls ‘urgent’ meeting on education bill”. (Image Source: CBC)

The lack of funding for Indigenous students’ attributes to the cycle of imposed generational poverty contributed by social exclusion, institutional discrimination, and restricted economic and educational opportunity. To put these factors into perspective, 1 in 4 Indigenous individuals live in poverty or 25% making them the most common cultural group to experience poverty in Canada. It is important to understand the median annual earnings in Canada per educational achievement level to see how funding would greatly assist in lowering the Indigenous poverty rate. A bachelor’s degree median earnings are $68,342, then $43,254 for a high school diploma, following $23,303 for less than a high school diploma. With the restrictive and selective educational funding program, the 7 out of 10 Indigenous youth who aspire to complete a post-secondary degree but do not receive funding may experience the highest levels of poverty.

Additionally, the Aboriginal Multi-Media Society understands that once a funding gap is created, there is a real readiness gap, meaning Indigenous students fall behind in education beside their peers. In turn, the government, Canadians and Indigenous people see an achievement gap where “we end up with this terrible socio-economic gap”.

With tuition costs rising approximately 3.75% per school year, the “Two Percent First Nations Funding Cap” adds even more limitations to Indigenous students. A federal review from 2015 recommends adding additional money to the funding program as a two percent annual increase does not relatively keep up with the growing costs of tuition. The 2015 report was part of an attempt to assist the federal government in removing limitations that continue to under-represent Indigenous students on Canadian campuses; yet, the lack of funding still “literally affecting the potential future in communities by limiting the access to education” NDP Indigenous affairs critic Charlie Angus states. He adds, “the government…is very clear in their internal briefings about the devastating effect that the two percent cap has, so why is it still there?” So, what can be done?

To assist Indigenous students in financial lack of post-secondary education, universities could commit to funding programs that assist with tuition, housing and scholarships to support overcoming barriers. Also, universities could create relationships with Indigenous graduates, elders, and Indigenous educational and cultural organizations in collaboration for Indigenous course content. This could lead to new potentials for funding, student participation, and circulating Indigenous knowledge, history, and issues. Additionally, demanding change in the Two Percent Funding Cap and the right to education for the livelihood of Indigenous people in Canada by advocating for transformation can greatly help in closing the post-secondary educational gap.


  • Sharee Hochman

    Currently, I am a student at the University of Winnipeg double majoring in rhetoric writing and communications and sociology.

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