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At the end of her eight-year term in the Assembly of First Nations Chief, Harthack Radisson was forced to give up her native status when she lost a vote on legislation affecting treaties with Canada’s First Nations.
In 1962, the Ontario native went on to gain an honorary doctorate from the University of Toronto, which had expelled her as a student for participating in protest, and today, as a leader in the school’s aboriginal leadership program, she has come full circle.
The North York Secondary School principal and Indigenous advisory committee member is one of the many women in the school’s leadership program to hold a post in higher education as a direct result of its inception in 1974. At the time, there were only six girls in the leadership program.
Today there are 32 members and one student in the class of 2019. More than half are recognized for their academic prowess. Two have since won the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal and one was once nominated for a spot on Canada’s Order of Merit.
Harthack Radisson at her graduation from U of T. Credit: University of Toronto
The program is unique in its ability to weed out those children or women who don’t necessarily meet its stringent scholarship requirements, in part because every year the admissions committee asks them “what would you do” if it offered scholarships only to students from Canada’s six indigenous colleges, a provincially funded institution with campuses on the Reserves and a student body mostly comprising of aboriginal people.
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The feedback from students about the program reflects some of the challenges faced by indigenous students across Canada, which remains the world’s largest Aboriginal population. This includes issues such as access to educational resources, cultural and language curriculum, and cultural adaptation, and the programme is one of few that is growing in size.
“The program is unique in how we look at indigenous women’s participation in post-secondary education,” Haspel said. “We’re trying to provide Canadians with diversity and options on all levels in terms of gender, in terms of origins.”
The focus on leadership was also created to address the social discrimination aboriginal women have faced in the past.
Aboriginal women have higher rates of higher education and poverty in Canada, according to UN Women. The UN estimates as many as 70% of enrolled in First Nations and Inuit students do not have access to an education.
In the province of Ontario, research shows that women on the Reserves are unlikely to go to school as opposed to their Indigenous women from cities, according to UN Women. Girls from Reserves and the Inuit communities tend to leave school before they reach the age of high school at age 16 to work in the Northern territories.
Having a program that provides aboriginal females an opportunity to go to school means they can further develop their leadership skills, even when their students or families don’t have the means to pay their full tuition.
“We made it [the leadership program] affordable, so that students, without parents to support them, could still go to school,” Haspel said.
At the end of the day, the leadership program is a non-profit organization and all the earnings made from the program are donated to help support the students, while some portion is given to student-run scholarships, particularly for women who want to return to school upon graduation.
The hope is that students in these programs will continue to be part of the schools’ programs as they enter higher education, and that the number of Native leadership students in higher education will increase.
“There’s a lot more work that needs to be done but we are moving towards a better future. And I think it’s important to keep making that happen. We have to keep pushing, it’s a journey. It’s not going to be easy but we keep working on it. I just like seeing it be better,” said Haspel.