Indigenous post-secondary students


In January of 2011, Bill C-3 Gender Equity in Indian Status Registration was enacted, which allows “grandchildren of women who lost Indian Status as a result of marrying non-Indian men” to apply for their status (Service Canada 2011). In 1985, a similar change happened to the same piece of legislation, the Indian Act, called Bill C-31, an Act to Amend the Indian Act (Native Women’s Association of Canada NWAC 2011). In an effort to reduce the gender discrimination within the Indian Act, section 12(1) of the Indian Act, which stated that an Indigenous woman who married a non-Indigenous man could no longer retain her status, was removed (NWAC 2011). Not so coincidentally, up until the year 1991, there was also an increase in Indigenous peoples with higher educational credentials. However, White and Beavon suggest that this increase in higher education credentials among this population group may not be because more Indigenous people are going to university; rather, the increase may be attributed to more Indigenous peoples declaring their status because of such legislative changes (2009:8). With the most recent changes to Bill C-3, an increase in Indigenous peoples with higher credentials in subsequent years may then also be attributed to the January 2011 legislative changes. These policy changes create an illusion of more Indigenous students in university, but the reality is that there is more people declaring their status after university.

These policy changes that create the illusion that more Indigenous students are benefitting from post-secondary are detrimental to Indigenous students who are currently in university. Hull notes that Aboriginal groups experience difficulties with regards to success and achievement throughout their educational careers, but notes most difficulty lies in completing secondary school and university (2004:157). Additionally, Clement highlights that the gap between Registered Indians, as defined by the Indian Act, and other Canadians with university degree completions nearly doubled from -6.5% in 1981 to -13.2% in 2006 (2009:96). This paper will address the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students in terms of post-secondary completion rates by answering the following question: Why are Indigenous students less likely to complete a post-secondary education within the university stream? Within this paper, the term post-secondary refers to universities within Canada. However, there is limited research addressing university completion among this group, as much of the research that exists focuses on primary and secondary outcomes. Further, the term “Indigenous student” is used in a broad manner to include First Nations students, Inuit students, and Métis students. There are limits to using this term with inclusivity. For instance, much of the research obtained for the purposes of this paper addresses specific Indigenous groups. The reason for using the term “Indigenous” in its inclusivity is to highlight the fact that all Indigenous groups lag behind the non-Indigenous population in terms of post-secondary completion (White and Beavon 2009:6). To answer the question, a sociological perspective will be undertaken employing a Marxist theory to explain why Indigenous students lag in post-secondary completion, and using Kingsley Davis and Wilber E. Moore’s social stratification theory to help explain why, as a society, this issue needs to be addressed to move forward in a positive direction.

In the Marxist theory of social relations, there exist three interdependent concepts: alienation, exploitation, and false consciousness. A false consciousness is defined as “having an incorrect idea about the social world” (Zavitz-Gocan 2011). These ideas can be incorrect in one of two ways: either that the idea is so false that it does not represent reality or that the idea about the social world is accurate but deviates from behaviour (Zavitz-Gocan 2011). Universities create a false consciousness among students, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, through alienation. This alienation is created through the commodification of knowledge. Blyth describes the university experience as “often overcrowded academic spaces…offering knowledge as a commodity for students who, made docile and passive, [are] expected to consume it” (2008:67). For Marx, a commodity is a source of alienation through commodity fetishism (Ritzer 2011:58). Commodity fetishism is the concept that commodities acquire an exchange value, and can be bought or sold (Ritzer 2011:58). According to Marx, commodities are defined as “products of labour intended primarily for exchange” (Ritzer 2011:57). The commodification of knowledge occurs when professors reproduce this knowledge in the lecture room in exchange for a salary and tenure. Upon graduation, students search for jobs that their undergraduate training and knowledge could be exchanged for an income. This commodification of knowledge contributes to further alienation of the Indigenous student from mainstream university education. Beverley describes university education as “divorced from the world in which [students] will have to work” (2000:132). Indigenous students may feel disconnected from the university experience, especially from the various theories, concepts, etc. that a professor may teach them, and from the content of the textbooks they are told to purchase because they do not correspond to their own realities both as an Indigenous person and as a student.

As stated earlier, a false consciousness is an incorrect idea about the social world, and this could be created by one of two ways. One of these ways is that the idea about the social world is an accurate one but deviates from behaviour, which may create a class in itself (Zavitz-Gocan 2011). A class in itself is a class without consciousness and is defined as “a group with similar interests [with] its potential for conflict” (Zavitz-Gocan 2011; Ritzer 2011:62). The potential for conflict is created by a university’s rigid and competitive degree requirements to enter into certain programs. Beverley describes the university environment as having a “‘me-first’ attitude” (2000:133). Even though a university may have a specific place for Indigenous students to gather, universities contribute to the problem though the ghettoization of First Nations studies. This is a problem because many Indigenous issues are presented in lectures, but these same issues are not adequately discussed in lower levels of education. For example, resources for teaching history that teach dominant colonial ideologies and that do not adequately portray Indigenous experiences may have been used in primary school classrooms (Iseke-Barnes 2005). As an Indigenous student in a predominantly non-Indigenous high-school history class, I was taught that residential schools were created to “educate” Aboriginal children. When I questioned the teacher’s lesson, I was immediately sent out of the classroom. In a similar fashion, university lectures are very limiting in their discussions. When professors bring up issues of poverty and substance abuse among Indigenous groups, professors may assume that students are prepared for university and many non-Indigenous students do not question why or how Indigenous groups face these realities. Either out of fear of saying the wrong thing or for simply having no interest in Indigenous issues, many students then accept this Indigenous identity as is it presented to them and do not question why or how this group faces these harsh realities (Beverley 2000). Thus, universities have not helped the problem; they simply divided the class of students and eliminated potential conflict by ghettoizing Indigenous-themed courses. Indigenous students may be attuned to the potential conflict that exists, and decide for themselves that education is of no use for them. Indigenous students may develop this attitude toward university education because course content may alienate them from their own experiences.

In addition to this false consciousness and alienation, exploitation occurs. Exploitation occurs when there exists a differential in power relations. Beverley further describes the undergraduate student experience as “a list of largely unwritten expectations” (2000:127). These expectations are ones that each student must abide by in order to be successful: be on time, always present, and learn what the professor presents (Beverley 2000:127). Not only must students learn what their professor decides to teach them by choosing their textbooks and choosing which topics to lecture on, both student groups must also abide by what the university dictates. For example, my program has a rigid module where many of my classes have not adequately discussed Indigenous issues in a historical, cultural, or social context, even though Indigenous issues are constantly the subject of lectures. Lee Maracle, an Indigenous scholar, describes this university experience as constant re-victimization for the Indigenous student (2012). Indigenous students may feel isolated from mainstream university education causing them to further question, both from the perspective of an Indigenous person and a student, what good is a university education.

By way of its own environment and through the commodification of knowledge, universities create a false consciousness among its students via alienation and exploitation. This alienation is created through the commodification of knowledge. Professors are hired for their knowledgeable background, and reproduce this knowledge in the lecture room in exchange for a salary and tenure. Upon graduation, students search for jobs so that their knowledge can be exchanged for an income. Alienation is intensified through the creation of a student class in itself through the inherent conflict of the university’s rigid and competitive degree requirements. As false consciousness is interdependent on alienation and exploitation, students are also exploited through the differential in power relations where the university and professor dictate what the students will learn. Indigenous students may be aware of the exploitation and the alienation by the constant re-victimization of their historical, cultural, and social experiences, thereby potentially causing some Indigenous students to question the purpose of a university education.

In an increasingly globalized society, the need for a university education has become more important now than ever. However, some may argue that university is not for everyone. So, why should we care that Indigenous students lag behind non-Indigenous students in completion rates? Iseke-Barnes states that continuing to ignore Indigenous issues is both damaging and demeaning to non-Indigenous and Indigenous student populations (2005:162). Davis and Moore’s social stratification theory highlights that there are two determinants to potential ranks: functional importance and scarcity of personnel (1944:243). Scarcity of personnel is affected by how talent to fill the position is acquired (Davis and Moore 1944:244). Talent can be acquired innately or through training, like university. In one study, researchers found that Indigenous students with higher credentials have relatively higher earnings in comparison to their non-Indigenous counterparts including other visible minorities (Walters, White and Maxim 2004:296). They suggested that even though Indigenous people with higher credentials are uncommon, there is a demand for them (Walters et al. 2004:296). Therefore, there is a clear need for Indigenous peoples with higher credentials.

Unfortunately, in addition to the inherent conflict within university environments as well as the additional alienation and exploitation as described above, Indigenous students may not see the benefit of acquiring these higher credentials that require long, costly training. Spence, White and Maxim argue that the economic status of a First Nation community may contribute to an Indigenous students’ educational outcome (2007:150). These contributing factors can be placed on a spectrum with no jobs existing at one end, many low-end jobs in the middle, and a mix of jobs (low, middle, high-end) existing at the opposite end. If there is a mixture of jobs, school becomes relevant for the Indigenous student, but if there are no jobs, the Indigenous student may fail to see the benefit of acquiring such credentials (Spence et al. 2007:150). With increased globalization and multicultural identities, Indigenous students may feel further displaced by the increased competition created by external factors that affect social solidarity or social stratification. Davis and Moore state that external factors that affect the stratified systems are increased cultural heritage and cultural diffusion (1944:249). However, in a highly globalized society, the need for technical training and knowledge is prioritized, and sacred or religious needs are withdrawn. Davis and Moore state that, “When the preoccupation with the sacred is withdrawn…a great development, and rise in status, of economic and technological position seemingly takes place” (1944:248). For Indigenous students, this may be interpreted as struggle with trying to prioritize their educational needs over their cultural needs, contributing to further displacement from university education.

This paper addressed the issue of the gap between Indigenous students and non-Indigenous students’ completion rates, in part, by employing a Marxist theory to explain why this gap exists and also used the social stratification theory to explain why this gap needs to be addressed. In addition to this question, Iseke-Barnes presents the question of who benefits from this type of education where the dominant ideology is continuously expressed and the Indigenous identity is incessantly re-victimized (2005). From the perspective of a student, nobody benefits especially if students are taught to passively consume knowledge as fact and in exchange as a commodity. Focusing on themes of decolonizing and indigenizing texts and classroom structure may be celebratory and disparaging for Indigenous students, but also a difficult and emotional task (Beverley 2000; Blyth 2008). However, Indigenous knowledge may begin to be included in the discussion of sociological issues. For example, Indigenous elders can be included as speakers of Indigenous knowledge within the classroom when discussing Indigenous issues, and not just in Indigenous-themed courses. Professors may also begin to include positive images of the Indigenous identity. Presently, there exist many Indigenous scholars who have published many articles on various sociological issues. An attempt to actively include such articles may deconstruct the Indigenous identity as one that is constantly victimized. Universities do not have to sacrifice non-Indigenous student experiences in an attempt to provide a non-alienating, non-exploitative university experience for Indigenous students, and Indigenous students do not have to sacrifice their culture at the expense of their own education. In the end, both structural and institutional changes can be made beginning today. The issue is complex but does not need to be an “Indigenous issue” any longer.


  1. Your introduction, in italics, was helpful in welcoming readers to the article. At times, I got bogged down in the academic paper. But the idea of education as a commodity for passive consumption is powerful. I wish you well as you contribute to an improved post secondary educational experience for Indigenous and non-Indigenous students.

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