By: Karissa Ketter, News Writer
Content warning: mention of residential schools in first paragraph
Three letters, signed by a total of 275 SFU faculty and staff, have been sent to president Joy Johnson, calling for a tuition waiver for Indigenous students at the university. One letter dated July 20, 2021 states, “In the spirit of reconciliation and social justice, underscored by the findings of mass and unmarked graves at residential school sites across Canada, we write to urge SFU to materially demonstrate its support for Indigenous people.”
The first letter was sent on June 6, 2021, the second on July 20, 2021, and the latest on September 3, 2021. The letters were respectively signed by 56, 62, and 157 faculty and/or staff. The Peak was unable to gain access to the contents of the June 6 and September 3 letters.
According to SFU health sciences professor Susan Erikson, the initiative has been a collective effort of “many others, present and past, who have also worked toward a tuition waiver.”
“We would like to see the administration consult with Indigenous leaders, and in conjunction with Indigenous leaders follow through by creating a policy on tuition waivers for Indigenous students,” said Arab. “It is something SFU can do. It is a small but meaningful step in the attempt to right the historic and present day injustices experienced by the Indigenous peoples of this land.
“Post-secondary education is a means by which the intergenerational health, wealth, and self-determination of Indigenous communities can be built.”
The July 20 letter noted “SFU would not be the first university in Canada to do so.”
UBC offers a program for students who lived as youth in care for at least two years in BC. The UBC Post Care Tuition Waiver program makes students eligible for tuition waiver towards their undergraduate degrees.
The first university to offer tuition waiver programs was Vancouver Island University in 2013. Following this, the then-NDP government created the Provincial Tuition Waiver Program. Indigenous students, alongside other youth in care ages 19–27 are eligible for the program if they are attending a BC public post-secondary school or some eligible union trades training centres. This letter is calling on SFU to waive tuition for all Indigenous students.
Erikson noted “enlisting Indigenous leadership is the most important step SFU needs to take at this point.”
“The committee that spearheaded this petition, to demand free tuition for Indigenous students, is to be lauded for their vision,” Dr. Deanna Reder (Cree-Métis), associate professor and chair of the department of Indigenous Studies, said to The Peak. “If reconciliation can ever be attainable, a rethinking about how things are done, and a restructuring of Canadian society needs to happen [ . . . ] we know a tuition waiver will open the door to some who can’t come in otherwise. This initiative will undoubtedly raise up leaders whom we might otherwise never meet.”
Reder pointed to the importance of Indigenous inclusivity in classrooms, “The inclusion of Indigenous students who once would have been barred from attending, will change discussions in our classrooms and throughout the university. It can change how we teach and how we think. We all can benefit from this change.”
The Peak reached out to SFU’s Indigenous Student Center (ISC) and the First Nations Student Association, but both declined to comment, with ISC citing a lack of knowledge of the initiative.
In a statement to The Peak regarding the July 20 letter, senior director of media relations Angela Wilson said, “We can confirm that the letter has been received by the president and is currently being reviewed by members of the executive team, including the Office of the Vice-President, Academic and Provost, and Student Services.”
Arab said the president of Academic Women “reported that Academic Women can expect to hear a response soon.”
“SFU continues to work to advance reconciliation, including enhancing supports to increase Indigenous student enrolment as well as creating safe spaces for Indigenous peoples to learn, work and visit. More information about progress with these initiatives will be shared in SFU’s 2021 reconciliation report, expected to be released in the coming weeks,” said Wilson.