Lawyer and advocate Roberta Jamieson standing before purple wall and indigenous artwork

Photography By Sian Richards

We’re about to get schooled by Roberta Jamieson

How the lawyer, advocate and Indigenous leader is making education accessible to Indigenous students

Roberta Jamieson learned early on that she didn’t just have to pay attention to what was being taught at school—she also had to question it. Now CEO and president of Indspire, a registered charity that supports First Nations, Metis and Inuit students and educators, Jamieson recalls growing up as a Mohawk girl in the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory near Brantford, Ont., when her second-grade teacher made it clear what she was obliged to teach them by government decree. After explaining how Columbus “discovered America,” she added her own lesson by starting with, “Now let me tell you the truth.”

Not only did this teacher explain to her students that their stories and ways of knowing were valid despite what their textbooks said, she did so at great risk—teachers were being fired for deviating from the curriculum at that time, Jamieson says. “She taught me the importance of critical thinking and looking behind what people were telling us to make sure that it stood the test of what we knew as reality. That has stuck with me my whole life.”

A lifetime of firsts

Jamieson would go on to become, in 1976, the first Indigenous woman to graduate from law school in Canada. (That’s where she learned that the Queen owned all the land in Canada and that Parliament reigned supreme. “I knew that wasn’t the truth,” she says. “I knew there was another, more valid way of looking at the law.”) She became the first female Ontario ombudsman in 1989 and the first female chief in her community in 2001, was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2016, and has more than 25 honorary doctorates. In April 2018, she was honoured with the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business’s Indigenous Women in Leadership Award. As someone who has forced open so many doors—and shut down many stereotypes along the way—Jamieson sees it as her job to “keep them open.”

To Jamieson, being the first is an opportunity not only to demonstrate what is possible, but to be an active role model and mentor to help those who will come after her. “The greatest satisfaction is to see other young Indigenous women and men take on roles that may not have been available to them before,” says Jamieson.

She recognizes the systemic barriers that have kept Indigenous people out of the corridors of power, reflected in low representation on corporate boards and in legislatures. And for her, the place to start addressing this gap is education, where the statistics reveal a persistent problem. There’s a stark difference between funding for Indigenous and for non-Indigenous schools: one economist estimates Indigenous schools may receive 30 percent less money. And that goes for high school graduation rates, too. One study found that only 40 percent of kids graduate on-reserve, versus 90 percent in the general population.

Lawyer and advocate Roberta Jamieson wearing purple shirt and silver jewellery

How education can help kids overcome systemic barriers

Closing these kinds of gaps is Jamieson’s mission at Indspire, starting with fighting the myth that all Indigenous students have access to funds for post-secondary education. Last year, the organization distributed $11 million to students via nearly 3,800 scholarships and bursaries. It also provides students with mentors and supports both Indigenous and non-Indigenous educators to give them the tools they need to validate their students’ Indigenous identities and ways of learning. The success of the programs for Jamieson isn’t just reflected in graduation rates, but also in Indigenous students feeling like they are part of a larger community.

“They may be the first child in their family that will graduate from high school,” says Jamieson. “We want them to feel like they are part of a critical mass that will change their families, communities and beyond.”

2018 marked the 25th anniversary of the Indspire Awards, an annual televised event honouring First Nations, Metis and Inuit achievement. Celebrating that achievement has a two-fold positive effect, notes Jamieson: helping Indigenous youth imagine a bright future for themselves, and providing Canadians with examples of Indigenous excellence.

What reconciliation looks like in our education system

The work Jamieson does at Indspire is part of a larger structural shift she wants to see in education in Canada. For Jamieson, Indigenising education is key to sharing Indigenous knowledge and creating a system that is built to include Indigenous people rather than, as it has for most of Canada’s history, excluding them. That means rethinking everything from how curriculum is developed to who teaches it to what the environment students learn in looks like.

This shift is one fundamental part of what achieving reconciliation must include for Jamieson. While the Truth and Reconciliation Commission helped many educate themselves on what the true relationship between settlers and Indigenous people was and is, Jamieson says Canadians need to take action.

“True reconciliation requires structural and systemic change,” she says. “This is more than an apology or financial compensation. This is profound change that is required if we are going to repair the damage of the last 150 years, where extraordinary steps were taken to exclude our people. I think it’s now time for extraordinary steps to include [us].”

Want to learn about other amazing local changemakers? Sign up for our Good News Letter to get tips, inspiration and uplifting stories delivered to your inbox every weekend!