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As number of Indigenous grads grows, so do calls for funding and programs that reflect the history of their communities First Nations Trent University students sit in a campus tepee in Peterborough, Ont., on Nov. 28. As members of the school’s native association, they hold their weekly meetings around a fire in the structure. Photos by Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail It’s a cold, late November afternoon at Trent University – the kind of cold that makes a fall coat feel no longer adequate for a day that could easily tip into winter. But inside a tepee on the edge of campus, a fire warms a group of students seated in a circle around the flames. Thin plumes of smoke escape through the open roof, the smell guiding a visitor to the weekly meeting of the school’s native association.

Before the meeting begins, one woman leads a smudging ceremony to cleanse negative thoughts and feelings. Walking around the circle, she offers each person the smoke from a smouldering ember, and they bathe their hands and faces with the aromatic cedar.

With only a few weeks left until the end of term, much of the meeting is devoted to finding a free evening or two to relax before exams and to planning group dates for bowling or pizza.

This is a new generation of First Nations and Inuit students, some of whom grew up in Peterborough or nearby First Nations communities such as Curve Lake or Alderville, others from communities farther away, such as Six Nations. Jukipa Kotierk has come all the way from Nunavut because Trent runs in the family: Her mother and aunt both graduated from the school, partly drawn to Canada’s oldest Indigenous studies program.

Everyone knew they would find a kindred community of supportive peers who could make it easier to relearn a colonialist history they often find painful to hear again.

"We know people who went to residential school," said Kendall Hill, a college-relations representative for the association. "My grandma told me how it was."

Many say they sometimes feel they are moving toward the future faster than their institution. They want a curriculum that reflects the history of their communities, their lives and culture – and their engagement with Canada now.

"Look at this space," said Tristen Schneider, the vice-president of the student association, sweeping her arm around the circle. "We are overcoming."

Statistics Canada data released last month show she is right. The number of Indigenous students earning bachelor’s degrees continues to rise, with almost 11 per cent of Indigenous people holding a BA in 2016, compared with about 7 per cent in 2006. College credentials are going up at a similar rate.

The success, however, is not evenly distributed across Indigenous groups. Métis people are more likely than First Nations or Inuit students to have earned a university or college credential. University graduates are more likely to be living in urban communities than on reserves and more Indigenous women graduate from postsecondary institutions than men, as is the case for all Canadians.

If you haven’t finished high school, it’s hard to get a university or college degree. And a third fewer native students have a high-school diploma than the non-native population, a testament to decades of lagging investment in elementary and secondary education on reserves.

Yet, even when Indigenous students reach the starting line for college and university, there has been no guarantee that the money will be there to pursue higher education. For decades, federal spending was capped on the Post-Secondary Student Support Program (PSSSP), the primary financial-aid program for Indigenous students headed to higher education. In the 2017 budget, Ottawa injected […]

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