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Why indigenous studies are important in Canadian higher education

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Alyssa Walker :
It's First Nations Day in Canada-and the first day of summer!  Also called National Aboriginal Day, Canada celebrates the heritage, cultures, and achievements of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis.  The Canadian government recognizes these three groups of people as Canada's indigenous.
Why summer solstice to celebrate Indigenous cultures?  It's the longest day of the year and historically many Indigenous communities have celebrated their culture and heritage today.
Announced in 1996 by then Governor General of Canada, Roméo LeBlanc, National Aboriginal Day came together when various Indigenous groups voiced their political support to have a national day.
The Canadian government celebrates National Aboriginal Day by working with Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) and Canadian Heritage and by offering funding for promotion and events.
Why is National Aboriginal Day important in Canadian Higher Education?  Let's take a closer look at four reasons it resonates on campuses around the country.
1.    Indigenous culture is part of campus culture.
With many campuses around the country embracing Indigenous culture, students are finding new requirements: courses on Indigenous culture as pre-requisites for graduation.  Why?  It's more difficult for racism and discrimination to thrive when students understand and celebrate other cultures.
Last year, every new student at the University of Winnipeg had to take a course in indigenous cultures.  Its effect?
In an article in The Guardian last summer,  Kevin Settee, an Anishinaabe and Cree student said, "It's an opportunity for people to wake up a little bit. "He added, "No matter what field you're going to be working in, you're going to be interacting with indigenous people.  Everyone needs to have that baseline understanding of history and culture."
These requirements continue to be important because despite successes like this one, prejudices are still alive and well. See #2.
2.    Prejudices are still strong.
The stereotypes are still strong. Negative perceptions of indigenous people and their culture persists, both in and outside Aboriginal communities.
Why?  Canadian-Indigenous history is complicated - and full of injustice, violence, and discrimination against the country's native populations.
What needs to happen?  The course in Winnipeg is a good start, but there's more. Canadian indigenous leaders, as well as the country's government, believe that people need opportunities to learn about the history of Indigenous cultures in Canada.  See #3.
3.    History can teach us a lot about Indigenous cultures.
INAC has an online resource available to the general public that offers an outstanding history of First Nations in Canada and how they have changed over time.
Its target audience is Canadian high school students, but it's appropriate for anyone interested in learning more about the historical factors that shaped First Nations communities over time-from before the arrival of Europeans to the present day.
The goal of INAC's resource? To show that First Nations are relevant to everyday Canadian life and to disabuse the general public about prejudices.
4.    Indigenous studies involve more than just culture.
Some have described the relationship between Canada and its Indigenous people as "broken."  Despite Canada's constitutional protection to First Nations over 30 years ago, in many ways the protection is in name only, not in practice.
As a result, there are significant gaps in socio-economic situations between Indigenous Canadians and non-Indigenous Canadians.  Those living on reservations are among the nation's poorest.
The Canadian government's provisions for infrastructure, health, education, and basic amenities still do not reach many First Nations groups, particularly in remote areas.
University degrees among indigenous populations remains low-just 6.5 percent, compared to over 25 percent of all Canadian adults who hold a Bachelor's degree.
First Nations Day-or Aboriginal Day-aims to end the stereotypes and shed light on serious inequalities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians.
Interested in learning more?  Check out the Toronto Sun's most recent piece on the day, entitled, National Aboriginal Day: Our Chance To Get It Right.   
The key to getting it right?  Education.
Learn more about studying in Canada.
(Alyssa Walker is a freelance writer, educator, and nonprofit consultant. She lives in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with her family).

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