The University of Manitoba graduated 510 Indigenous students on Saturday, the largest cohort in its history.
Comparatively, in 2011 — the year I started teaching at the U of M — there were 158.
That’s more than three times as many and one of the highest numbers in North America (University of Saskatchewan hasn’t released this year's numbers yet but it is often slightly higher than the U of M).
This means we will have more Indigenous professionals entering the workforce than ever before, and its a number that has been increasing every year for a decade.
More Indigenous professionals mean nothing but good things for Manitoba. Indigenous young people are our province’s fastest-growing population. Having them fully invested in our economy, society and culture is good for everything and everyone.
This year’s incredible number of graduates are essentially students who started at the beginning of Brian Pallister’s reign as premier five years ago.
These are the last students created out of the investments and programs (such as the long-standing tuition freeze) created during the previous NDP government.
Pallister and his cabinet, of course, have had their own vision for education since — but more on that in a moment.
Many in this year’s crop of Indigenous graduates are finishing with degrees in science, education, engineering and social work.
There’s a pretty decent number graduating from the Asper School of Business, too.
By far, though, the largest group is in arts, in fields such as psychology, history and political studies.
In the Native Studies program alone, we have approximately 600 students enrolled a year, nearly a quarter of all Indigenous students.
In other words, Indigenous students are, most often, enrolled in the humanities and social sciences, fields that produce teachers, nurses and social workers, along with people who land somewhere in the non-profit, creative or political sectors.
Indigenous students are, most often, enrolled in the humanities and social sciences, fields that produce teachers, nurses and social workers, along with people who land somewhere in the non–profit, creative or political sectors.
Not coincidentally, those are the fields that have had the most conflict with the current provincial government.
Nurses and social workers have been calling for help as emergency rooms close. The province claws back federal child-welfare money for Indigenous children. Wages have been frozen under the Public Service Sustainability Act.
I don’t have to tell you the situation teachers face under the government's proposed Bill 64 — the Education Modernization Act — which not only eliminates local control of education and threatens the independence of teachers, but eliminates administrators from protections provided under the Manitoba Teachers' Society.
In Bill 57 — the Protection of Critical Infrastructure Act — Pallister and his government have already let Manitobans know what will happen if anyone "interferes" (according to the legislation) with pipelines, dams, hospitals, courthouses and roads:
Arrest, charges and, eventually, jail.
Which fields of study do you think are graduating the people who "interfere"? Hint: it isn’t business. It’s the humanities and the social sciences.
So, as the government prepares to pass Bill 33 — the Advanced Education Administration Act (who makes these terribly offensive titles for legislation, anyway ? — which fields do you think will be targeted?
The proposed legislation gives the provincial government the power to administer tuition for university programs.
It means, essentially, that Minister of Advanced Education, Skills and Immigration Wayne Ewasko will dictate to Manitoba universities what programs students must pay more to study and what programs will cost less, according to whatever market interests the provincial government has.
Or, perhaps, politicized fields that produce critical thinking and independent leaders. Native Studies, I admit, fits this definition exactly, but so does Women’s and Gender Studies, education and the arts.
What was it Louis Riel said about the artists waking up the people?
When announcing the bill, Ewasko promised it was in the interests of making tuition accessible and affordable.
That’s completely absurd, considering this government has removed caps on tuition, cut funding to post-secondary institutions by 13 per cent and overseen an 18 per cent hike in tuition since taking office in 2016.
This decision alone has, arguably, already resulted in a reduction in Indigenous enrolment. This year at the University of Manitoba, while total undergraduate enrolment increased by 2.4 per cent, Indigenous enrolment was down 1.4 per cent.
Simply put, fewer Indigenous students means fewer graduates five years from now.
This government has made it clear that cuts are the order of the day in education, health and the non-profit sector — three of the areas where Indigenous students have had a significant impact.
Pallister has also made clear that his provincial government demands obedience and passivity; no one dare protest his decisions.
Speaking on behalf of Indigenous peoples, we aren’t so good with any of those things.
With Bill 33, it’s conceivable that the next decade of Indigenous graduate classes will be smaller than what we are seeing now.
This means a less-progressive, representative and efficient Manitoba with fewer Indigenous professionals.
And, worst of all, an incredible opportunity wasted.
Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.