$2.9 million in support removes financial barriers for 36 Indigenous students

The U of A’s Aboriginal Teacher Education Program allowed Carmen Poitras (centre) to earn her education degree while remaining in Cold Lake, Alta., with her family. This financial award, made possible by gifts from CIBC and Indspire, helped Poitras focus on school instead of financial stress. (Alina Joy Photography)


Carmen Poitras always knew she could make a difference as a teacher — it was getting the degree that seemed unlikely. At 39, she had three young children and two jobs in Cold Lake, Alta. She was sure she couldn’t go back to school. That is, until school came to her.

A colleague suggested she apply to the University of Alberta’s Aboriginal Teacher Education Program, which allows students to earn an education degree while remaining in their communities. She applied and was accepted to the Cold Lake cohort. Although she was excited about the program, she was worried about finances. That’s when Poitras heard about financial assistance for Indigenous students made possible through CIBC and Indspire, a national charity that supports education for Indigenous students.

Indspire has matched a $500,000 gift from CIBC plus other commitments to create awards for Indigenous students at the U of A. Poitras is one of 36 Indigenous students receiving funds thanks to this new partnership that totals $2.9 million in support. 

“Indspire and CIBC’s generous gifts to the University of Alberta will help to change lives,” said Bill Flanagan, president and vice-chancellor of the U of A, in announcing the partnership. “Because of their commitment to Indigenous students, 36 future leaders will receive the support they need to see their studies through to graduation.

“This is an important investment in a vision we all share — an equitable society in which Indigenous voices are heard at every level,” said Flanagan. “This gift will help build the momentum needed to create equity in health care, business, education, policy and other areas of society.”

For Indigenous youth, lack of access to financial aid is the most significant barrier to further education after high school. According to the Canadian Federation of Students, more than 18,000 Indigenous people across Canada did not receive funding for post-secondary education from 2006 to 2011 because the demand outstripped the available funds in the federal government’s support program for Indigenous students.

August 9 marks International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, and this year it will be observed on Aug. 10. It is a day created to raise awareness of the pressing needs of Indigenous Peoples. Work to rectify the longstanding inequities that Indigenous groups disproportionately face continues. These inequities — poverty, poor educational attainment, victimization, incarceration and poor health, among others — exact an enormous toll on Indigenous Peoples and society.

“The national Truth and Reconciliation Commission recognized the great power of education to address the many challenges faced by Indigenous communities. The University of Alberta is deeply committed to the TRC’s Calls to Action and partnerships such as this one are critical levers to support the educational goals of Indigenous Peoples. Education is the single most effective means by which the systems that continue to disadvantage can be addressed and the contributions of Indigenous Peoples honored,” said Florence Glanfield, Vice-Provost (Indigenous Programming and Research) at the U of A.

CIBC has long worked with the U of A on other initiatives. It was their introduction to the team at Indspire that created the opportunity for this matching gift.

“We’re committed to helping our Indigenous clients and their communities achieve their ambitions, and education plays a critical role in that process. By empowering students to plan their futures, we support the next generation of strong Indigenous leaders. Together with the University of Alberta and Indspire, we will be able to broaden the reach of these opportunities to make a long-lasting impact in communities across the province,” said Per Humle, Senior Vice-President and Region Head, Alberta and Central Canada, for CIBC.

With this contribution, donors are investing in an area that has the potential to transform not only the lives of individuals, but their families and communities.

“This partnership is a significant step in supporting First Nations, Inuit and Métis students to achieve their potential through education and training so they can in turn enrich their communities and create positive change in Canada,” said Roberta Jamieson, President and CEO of Indspire. “We are grateful for the support of CIBC and the University of Alberta for the work they are doing to invest in Indigenous achievement and education.” Jamieson also pointed out that it is thanks to the support from the Government of Canada that Indspire was able to provide the matching funds.

Poitras recognizes the opportunity to be a role model in her own community — and to her children: Jarris (10 years old), Kingston (11) and Blaize (16). With the financial support she received from CIBC and Indspire, she has wrapped up her student teaching at LeGoff School in the Cold Lake First Nations community and will convocate in November. The award offered her some peace of mind as she pursued her dream of being a teacher. 

“People don’t think about the emotional aspect of education. To be stressed out, to have your mind in financials and wondering what you’re going to do the next month … it’s hard on a student. Receiving [this award] did me well emotionally, mentally and spiritually,” she said.

Poitras is passionate about teaching from an Indigenous perspective and ensuring her students have confidence in their identity.

“In the past, education was forced on Indigenous Peoples as a way to assimilate them. Today, we can use education as an empowerment tool, one teacher at a time.”