Anonymous donor, Indspire, CIBC create lasting impact for Indigenous students

Indigenous scholarships
Professor Eva Ottawa receiving her Masters degree at the 2022 convocation
By Laura Eggertson
More than $2 million from an anonymous donor, CIBC and Indspire, a national Indigenous charity, is preparing the way for a long-overdue increase in First Nations, Métis and Inuit scholars in Canada.

A $1-million gift from the anonymous donor, in partnership with Indspire, will support the educations of up to 50 future Indigenous lawyers, says Danielle Lussier-Meek, the former Director of Indigenous and Community Relations at the Faculty of Law, Common Law section. Indspire, which invests in the education of First Nations, Inuit and Métis people, has increased the impact of the gift by leveraging matching funds it receives from the Government of Canada.

“To give you an idea of the scope of that impact, in Ontario there are 50 000 members of the bar, and of those 50 000, fewer than 600 are Indigenous,” says Lussier-Meek.

“When you talk about adding 50 new legally trained Indigenous voices to the conversation, I can’t overstate the impact here. It’s a huge number of new voices that will be able to bring perspective to the legal system and the justice system in Ontario and in Canada.”

The initial $1-million gift to the Common Law, to which Indspire added another $800,000, supports entrance scholarships and bursaries. In addition, the university has used part of the donation to finance an emergency fund to support students during crises or to offset travel for sudden illnesses or bereavements.

In the past, Indigenous students facing deaths or other tragedies in often remote communities often could not return to their studies after travelling home, given the prohibitive cost of that travel.  

The anonymous donor’s gift is intended to support learners and build legal capacity quickly, given the particular difficulties Indigenous students have in accessing legal education.

“There was one person who believed that this was important, and they put their money where their heart was and they invested in the community, and then it snowballed,” says Lussier-Meek. “I can’t even articulate the gratitude I have for that one individual who stood up and said, ‘This is important’.”

Although First Nations, Métis and Inuit students may receive some funding for their undergraduate post-secondary education through federal government transfers, they often don’t get that help for graduate degrees.

Decades of structural racism, underfunded education systems on reserve and the abuses of residential schools are among the barriers Indigenous students face in accessing post-secondary education. Fewer than 10 percent of First Nations, Métis and Inuit in Canada have a university degree; the national rate is closer to 26 percent, according to Universities Canada.

Thanks to the initial anonymous donation and partnership with Indspire, the university was able to build momentum through the CIBC Scholarship for Indigenous Students. That $200,000 donation from CIBC, with the match leveraged by Indspire, will fund $5000 scholarships for undergraduate or graduate Indigenous students from any degree program.

“We’re dedicated to supporting the next generation of Indigenous leaders and changemakers through investments like this sponsorship with the University of Ottawa,” says Jaimie Lickers, CIBC Vice President for Indigenous Markets.

There are about 630 students who self-identify as Indigenous at the University of Ottawa, out of a population of more than 44,000.

Lickers, who is an Onondaga lawyer from the Haudenosaunee community of Six Nations of the Grand River, can personally attest to the critical difference scholarships can make, including those from Indspire. She benefitted from the organization when she was in law school, when it was previously known as the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation.

“I can’t over-emphasize the importance in law school, where the curriculum is so demanding,” she says. “I don’t think it would have been possible for me to be as successful as I was during my legal studies if I had been distracted by financial worries and obligations.”

Indspire believes it will require multiple partners and multiple layers of engagement to overcome the structural barrier Indigenous learners face, says Mike DeGagné, President and CEO.

“We are very pleased to be partnering with CIBC and uOttawa on this important initiative, and we look forward to expediting this opportunity together as well as exploring future avenues to support Indigenous success,” he said in a statement.

“Partnerships like this one with CIBC and uOttawa, which create significant opportunities for Indigenous learners across the country, are tangible signs of reconciliation in action.”

The university has made support for Indigenous students a priority, as part of its commitment to reconciliation. An Indigenous Action Plan, which the Indigenous Standing Committee drafted, called for an increase in scholarships and bursaries as well as the creation of an emergency travel fund.   

Although these scholarships don’t cover the entire cost of a year of tuition at uOttawa, they help ensure food and housing security for students and give them the opportunity to focus on learning, says Lussier-Meek.

“The support for learners is life-changing.”

Many Indigenous students entering law school or other graduate programs are older and apply after switching career paths. The assistance they receive from uOttawa not only helps them, it inspires their children to reach for post-secondary education, Lussier-Meek says.

“We have a generation of kids who are seeing their Moms and Dads supported, and it builds self-esteem and confidence.” 

These scholarships and the community support the university is building are steps in the journey to healthier relationships, she adds.

“It’s an ethical imperative that everyone who lives in Canada engages with this ideal of being in better relationship with one another.”