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McGill introduces free tuition for some Natives

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Students from Kahnawake and Kanesatake attending McGill will soon have their tuition paid for by the university, a move made as part of the institution’s 52 Calls to Action made in 2017.

“I’m proud of how this came together, and appreciative of everyone’s support,” said Kahnawa’kehró:non Thomasina Phillips, associate director of Indigenous student success at McGill University.

Phillips was part of the team who worked on creating and implementing the initiative, which will be available to students from Fall 2024 onwards.

“People within the university and within the community education centres are committed to being part of implementing this and making it happen. We are all working towards the same goal of supporting Indigenous students’ educational choices.”

McGill’s move is inspired by the Haudenosaunee Promise, an initiative at Syracuse University, which provides tuition and mandatory fee waivers for Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, or Tuscarora students.

Celeste Pedri-Spade, who is Ojibwe, is McGill’s first-ever associate provost of Indigenous initiatives, and spearheaded the implementation of the call to action to remove tuition barriers. She said the tuition waiver has been a long time coming.

“We’re reconciling with the fact that Indian education in Canada, including residential schools, was about removing kids, removing students from their communities and homelands,” she said.

The first phase of the initiative extends free tuition to nearby communities, as well as communities historically implicated in McGill’s history. That includes Kahnawake, Kanesatake and Akwesasne, but also to Six Nations of the Grand River. Students from those communities are considered “Category A” applicants in the initiative.

The decision to include the community of Six Nations was made to acknowledge a loan made in the 1850s that saved McGill from bankruptcy. At the time, that money was loaned by the government of Canada from trust funds belonging to Six Nations, of which the government was a trustee.

McGill paid back that loan to the federal government in the 1880s, but the government failed to pay any money back to Six Nations – and the initial loan was taken without the community’s knowledge. 

That loan saved McGill from going bankrupt, and it’s estimated that with interest, the funds would now amount to over $1.7 billion. 

“We want to acknowledge and talk about how we can reconcile our own colonial history as an institution,” Pedri-Spade said. “That’s why with the idea of redress and reconciliation, and by looking at our own history, students from Six Nations of the Grand River are included in this first phase.”

There is an additional list of communities eligible for a tuition waiver – but only in specialized courses delivered through formalized educational partnerships, such as through the School of Continuing Studies or the School of Social Work. Those communities are not eligible for the waiver for courses outside of those formalized partnerships and are considered “Category B” applicants.

Eligible students currently studying at McGill will be able to benefit from the fee waiver from this fall onwards, though it won’t count retroactively. The fee waiver also only covers tuition, $200 of mandatory departmental and academic fees (for example, a clinical skills kit for nursing students), and $300 of mandatory field trips.

Other costs, like living allowances and textbooks, housing and transport costs, optional field trips, and meal plans are not covered through the initiative.

Engineering undergraduate student Gracie Diabo, who is from Kahnawake and is currently on a full-ride Loran scholarship at McGill, said that coverage of those additional costs would help truly break down barriers to education for Indigenous students.

“Tuition coverage is a great start, but as time goes on, I think it would be highly beneficial to offer additional support for more of the fees that come with going to university, such as housing,” she said. 

“For Indigenous students coming from our communities and even further away, this would mean so much and alleviate stress, ultimately encouraging academic success while progressing through an already difficult university degree and adjustment to city life.”

Kanehsata’kehró:non Stacy Pepin, who is a McGill Law student, said that though she’s encouraged by the material difference the tuition waver will make, she’s concerned by other areas where she feels McGill is failing students and faculty.

“At first I was a little taken aback because of the timing of the announcement, I thought it was very performative to mention such a big announcement during the ongoing strikes,” Pepin said, referencing the ongoing Faculty of Law strikes. “My thoughts on this decision are a little mixed, because of the timing, especially after all that occurred between the school and the Mohawk Mothers’ court case.”

McGill is currently in a legal battle with the Mohawk Mothers, a group mostly from Kahnawake, over construction at the former Royal Victoria Hospital site. While the Mothers want a more thorough search for unmarked graves there, McGill has fought to plough ahead with work.

“Although helpful, to me it seems as though it’s just a band-aid solution to perhaps make the school look good, despite all that has occurred since I first began my legal education in the fall of 2022.”

Pepin did say that she hopes the decision could encourage more Indigenous students to consider university.

“In terms of students in my community, this could potentially increase the number of students who attend a higher level of education, especially in the field of law, as there is a need for Indigenous representation,” she said. “I’m hoping this could be a good incentive for those within my community to go back to school, especially for those who may be struggling financially.”

It’s still early days for the initiative, which is intended to expand and cover tuition for all First Nations, Metis, and Inuit students in the future, though it’s unknown how long it may be before that expansion.

Students considered Category A (which includes Kahnawake and Kanesatake) can apply through their community’s education authority – for example, the Kahnawake Education Center – who will communicate directly with McGill to confirm the waiver. The deadline for community education authorities to send the list of eligible students to McGill for fall intake is July 24.

Students not on their community’s band list are eligible to apply through McGill’s Office of Indigenous Initiatives and must complete an application form to confirm their eligibility by July 7. 


This article was originally published in print on July 5 in issue 33.27 of The Eastern Door.

Eve is a reporter with the Eastern Door. She has also covered harm reduction and social justice issues for the Montreal Gazette, The Breach, Filter Magazine, and more.

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Eve is a reporter with the Eastern Door. She has also covered harm reduction and social justice issues for the Montreal Gazette, The Breach, Filter Magazine, and more.