Seats for Aboriginal students protected by human rights commission

By Mandy Cook | March 26, 2012

Memorial’s Aboriginal Designated Seats Program has been granted special status by the Newfoundland and Labrador Human Rights Commission.  

The special status protects existing designated seats and the program itself from any challenges, says Dr. Maura Hanrahan. As special adviser for the president for Aboriginal affairs at Memorial University, Dr. Hanrahan led the application process.

“Special program status is not easy to achieve,” she said. “We had to prove that the program responded to the needs of a group that has been disadvantaged and we had to demonstrate how the seats would answer those needs. The guidance from Karen Hollett, general counsel, was vital.”

The Aboriginal Designated Seats Program at Memorial is now the most comprehensive program of its kind in the country. While many Canadian universities have designated seats for Aboriginal students in a handful of programs, Memorial reserves seats for Aboriginal students in many programs university-wide. As a proportion of its total population, Newfoundland and Labrador has the largest Aboriginal population of any province east of Manitoba.

Memorial has reserved 1-3 seats or will have reserved 1-3 seats for Aboriginal students enrolling in undergraduate programs in police studies, kinesiology, recreation, physical education, business administration, international business administration, nursing, medicine and commerce and graduate programs in public health and business administration on the St. John’s campus. At Grenfell Campus, seats are reserved in the visual arts program and the master of arts in environmental policy program. There are reserved seats in virtually all on-campus programs at the Marine Institute with an extra seat that can be attached to any program. 

The Faculty of Medicine already has two seats – one spot each for an Aboriginal student from Labrador and one from Newfoundland. The faculty also runs a pre-medicine summer institute program, where Aboriginal students who are considering a career in the field can get a sense of what to expect from the full program. Memorial’s nursing programs have had reserved seats for Aboriginal students for some time, as well.

And 10 per cent of seats in the master of social work program are reserved per year for applicants of Aboriginal ancestry who meet the minimum criteria for admission.

Dr. Hanrahan says the existence of the Aboriginal Designated Seats Program has generated numerous queries from potential students and their families, simultaneously heightening Memorial’s visibility.

“If a student grows up in Cartwright on the Labrador coast or in St. Alban’s on the island’s south coast, they likely won’t have seen any kinesiologists, for example, and knowing about the seats prompts them to ask questions about the programs we offer here,” she said.

The Aboriginal Designated Seat Program is just one part of a suite of Aboriginal initiatives at Memorial. The integration of Aboriginal culture into university curriculum and the provision of more Aboriginal-specific support services, such as the new Aboriginal student lounge at Grenfell Campus, are among them. And while one particular program won’t bring Aboriginal post-secondary education participation levels up to the national average, Dr. Hanrahan says designated seats are a vital piece in the mix. 

“People are reading the designated seats as an invitation,” she said. “Not as a guarantee -- because they’re not. The same admissions criteria apply to Aboriginal students as they do to non-Aboriginal students. But just knowing that we have thought of Aboriginal students reinforces the message that this is their university. I was heartened when, after I updated him this and other Aboriginal initiatives, Innu Nation Grand Chief Joseph Riche said of Memorial, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing.’”


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