The University of Waterloo will waive tuition fees for qualifying students from two Ontario First Nation communities as part of the university’s reconciliation commitments.
This new initiative applies to current and incoming students who are members of the Six Nations of the Grand River and the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation. The university’s Waterloo campus is located on the traditional territory of these two First Nation communities.
Last year, the university held a sunrise ceremony to mark the institution’s commitment to reconciliation, Indigenization and decolonization.
Jean Becker, associate vice-president of Indigenous Relations at University of Waterloo, is pleased to see the university take this step.
“I think it’s really important because it is an action that goes beyond nice things, nice words and actually hopefully will be of some benefit to those particular communities,” she said.
University of Waterloo said it will also offer Ontario domestic tuition rates for Indigenous students from elsewhere in Canada and the United States, and will continue to waive application fees for applicants who identify as First Nations, Métis and Inuit.
Becker noted that it’s a common misconception that Indigenous students across Canada can attend university for free.
“We know that particularly Six Nations has a long list of students who are not funded every year because they only get a limited amount of [federal] funding for those students to attend post secondary. They have criteria that they use to determine who gets funding and who doesn’t, and they always end up with a long waiting list,” Becker said.
University of Waterloo’s initiative hopes to free up funds allocated to Indigenous communities and help bridge the educational gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations. Addressing the educational gap is one of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action, and Becker said she feels optimistic about the future as more recommendations are upheld.
“Those recommendations have made an actual difference. I’m quite optimistic about the future.”
University of Waterloo is the first Canadian university to waive full tuition for traditional territory holders.
University of British Columbia has a similar initiative called the Musqueam First Nation scholarship that provides up to $5,500 per year to students from that community as the university is built on Musqueam traditional territory.
In New York state, Syracuse University has a similar program called the Haudenosaunee Promise Scholarship Program that offers free tuition for Haudenosaunee students.
Free tuition is one step
Becker said she has worked in higher education for 30 years and has been frustrated by the slow progress to create initiatives to attract Indigenous students and help them thrive.
“It’s important that if we are doing anything that might attract Indigenous students that we need to be ready and understand the issues that Indigenous students face when they come to university and then be prepared with supports for them,” she said.
Becker hopes to see more post-secondary institutions follow UW’s lead, and is also hopeful for more initiatives to ensure Indigenous students’ success in accessing higher education.
One such initiative Becker said her office is currently working on is an exploration of bridging programs with high schools to help Indigenous students meet post-secondary admission requirements.
“Perhaps they’re not taking the courses they would need to qualify for university. That is another barrier that we will be hoping to address in the future,” she said.
The tuition waiver goes into effect in September 2023 and students are still required to meet academic admission criteria for full-time undergraduate or graduate degrees.
About one per cent of the current student body voluntarily identifies as Indigenous.