Tuesday, September 23, 2014
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NorQuest College aims to attract more aboriginal students

Proportion has dwindled to 11 per cent, down from 25

By Jodie Sinnema, Edmonton Journal

EDMONTON - NorQuest College hopes to boost its decreasing aboriginal student population by creating a more active role for the college’s aboriginal elder-in-residence and opening an aboriginal-focused construction career centre, among other new strategies.

Last year, nine per cent or about 383 of the 8,500 NorQuest students self-identified as Métis, First-Nation, aboriginal or Inuit. That’s down from 2009, when 15 per cent of students were aboriginal — and way down from 2004, when 25 per cent of students self-identified.

Jodi Abbott, NorQuest’s president since 2010, said she doesn’t want to speculate why the numbers have decreased.

“We want to see an increasing enrolment,” Abbott said, noting fall numbers show 11 per cent of the college’s student body is aboriginal. The body of 114 students at the Wetaskiwin campus is about 56 per cent aboriginal and has remained steady. “We’ve really made a commitment to aboriginal learners. We’ve not totally landed on numbers (to aim for) because there are all kinds of components we’re putting in place to be able to drive the numbers up and really ensure every aboriginal, First Nations, Métis, Inuit student who has an opportunity for education can certainly select us.”

Brad Hestbak, Slave-Lake-based senior director of external relations for Northern Lakes College, said it’s not competition among institutions that is bleeding away students from NorQuest, even though an estimated 60 per cent or more of the 2,400 students at Northern Lakes are aboriginal.

Hestbak said a lot of students from small communities want to stay close to home for school and work, and Northern Lakes has campuses in at least 25 different communities from High Level to Athabasca.

“We want people that live in northern Alberta, whether they are aboriginal or not, to be engaged in the economy of northern Alberta,” Hestbak said. “We don’t go out to recruit First Nations or Métis students specifically, but in many of our communities, that is the population who lives there.”

Abbott specifically wants to make NorQuest more attractive to the aboriginal population. The college at 10215 108 St. has long had an aboriginal elder on-site, working out of a sixth-floor lounge reserved for smudge ceremonies and casual chats with Tony Arcand, a 75-year-old elder from Alexander First Nation. But Abbott wants to align Arcand’s work with a new college aboriginal strategy created last year.

This year, Arcand has welcomed in a Muslim and someone from Scotland interested in learning about aboriginal culture. During his Tuesday shifts, he explains how it’s tradition for them to offer him tobacco before he will perform a cleansing smudge ceremony with buffalo sage.

“We have students from other cultures coming to learn about the aboriginal culture, which I think is wonderfully Canadian,” Abbott said.

Abbott is also poised to hire a student assistant who will work in the financial office and help aboriginal students figure out how to get financial support from complex native band programs.

This spring, she hopes more money will come from the province to open the Aboriginal Career Construction Centre west of NorQuest’s downtown campus. There, in a two-year $2.8-million pilot project, NorQuest will work with partners to help aboriginal students get safety training, upgrade their driver’s licences, learn essential work skills and soft skills such as teamwork before matching students with construction jobs.

In Alberta, aboriginals and new immigrants are part of the solution for labour demands.

“We don’t want our strategy to sit on the shelf,” Abbott said.

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