U of C wants more Aboriginal students

The University of Calgary is reaching out to Aboriginals in Canada in order to encourage more students to apply for medical school.

Medical students from University of Calgary and University of Alberta met with provincial Minister of Aboriginal Affairs Len Webber on Nov. 29 to raise awareness about the need for more Aboriginal students in medicine.

There are approximately 325 Aboriginal physicians in Canada, one for every 3,600 Aboriginals in the country.

“This does not reflect society,” said faculty of medicine admissions officer Adele Meyers. “We know there is not enough Aboriginal doctors compared to the amount of Aboriginals in the province and across the country.”

Although Webber acknowledged that more Aboriginal students are needed in the medical program, he is not taking any steps to specifically increase the number of Aboriginal students in the faculty of medicine. His focus is on primary education for Aboriginal youth.

“It is more about early education opportunities for students and building a strong foundation when they are young,” said Webber. “Catch them early and build strong foundations and then they will be qualified to get into post secondary.”

The U of C has been proactive in acknowledging the need for Aboriginal students in the medical program.

“It has been proven that rural students are 2.5 times more likely to return to a rural setting to practice medicine after obtaining their medical degree which helps in the regions of our low access areas,” said Students’ Union medical faculty representative Pamela Weatherbee. “Our hypothesis is that if we can attract low-income, Aboriginal and rural students to the U of C program, then we will have more physicians going back to their communities to help serve their medical needs.”

In 2008, the U of C established a new program to promote health care careers to Aboriginal students. The Aboriginal Heath Program aims to raise awareness of First Nations, Metis and Inuit health issues and recruit Aboriginal students in the field of medicine.

“Our reason for being is to promote a career in health care, especially in medicine, to Aboriginal students,” said Aboriginal health program coordinator Sue-Ann Facchini. “We go into schools, career fairs, talk to students about the possibility of medicine and answer questions to take to get them there.”

There has not been an increase in the number of Aboriginal students since its establishment in 2008.

“Our Aboriginal student admission policy is fairly young and so we have not seen an increase,” said Facchini. “We are working on it.”

Almost all Canadian universities have an employee in charge of increasing the number of Aboriginal medical students due to an initiative by The Association of Faculties of Medicine of Canada. In December 2004, an Aboriginal Health Task group was formed to look at how schools could better serve the Aboriginal population of Canada.

The task force recommended an increase in the number of Aboriginal medical graduates. To do this the U of C has adjusted the admission process for Aboriginal applicants.

According to the University Policy for the Recruitment of Applicant of Aboriginal Background, the faculty of medicine offers interviews to all Aboriginal applicants of who meet the 3.2 GPA requirement.

All other student applicants need to meet the 3.2 GPA requirement, but are not guaranteed an interview.

The U of C medical program saves 15 per cent of seats for out of province students, while students from Alberta compete for the other 85 per cent.

“There is a quota for non-Albertans and Albertans and so even if a self-declared Aboriginal is from Ontario, we put them in the Alberta pool,” said Meyers.

Aboriginal students also have the opportunity to include a personal statement regarding their connection to their community.

The U of C consistently has low numbers of Aboriginal students enrolled in the medical program.

“At any one time we only have approximately one per cent of our class who have stated they are Aboriginal,” said Facchini. “We would expect closer to five per cent of [graduates] to be of Aboriginal origin.”

Facchini said this is because Aboriginals make up five per cent of Alberta’s population.

Unlike other universities, the U of C does not have reserved seats for Aboriginal students.

“A lot of schools do,” said Facchini. “They have chosen to approach things in a different way than we have.”

According to the University Policy for the Recruitment of Applicants of Aboriginal Background the medical faculties at universities in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba each have five or six dedicated seats for Aboriginal students.

“The U of C decided not to have dedicated seats because we felt that it was in the interest of equality for all to not separate the Aboriginal applicants in that way,” said Facchini. “We did not want to foster a feeling of stigmatization by segregating Aboriginal students from their classmates.”

Webber agreed with the university’s policy.

“It should be up to your knowledge and not up to your race,” said Webber.

The U of C faculty of medicine also teaches about Aboriginal issues.

“We have a significant amount of Aboriginal people who live in Alberta,” said Facchini. “It is important that we are not only recruiting Aboriginal people to become doctors, but we teach all doctors in order to best serve the needs of the Aboriginal people.”

Co-chief of the First Nations Student Association Thomas Snow said it is important to create opportunities for Aboriginal people.

“Getting to university is very challenging for Aboriginal people,” said Snow. “Even just getting through high school can be very challenging.”

According to Statistics Canada, 45 per cent of First Nations people living on a reserve in 2006 lived in homes that needed major repairs, compared to 36 per cent a decade ago.

“Reserves are have some of the poorest social condition in the country,” said Snow. “People live off $200 a month and when you have conditions like that, it leads to other problems, like school.”

In 2006, 33 per cent of Aboriginal adults aged 25 to 54 had less than a high school education compared to nearly 13 per cent of the non-Aboriginal population, according to a report by Statistics Canada.

“Staying in school can be very hard for many students,” said Snow. “I am glad that the U of C is taking proactive steps and helping Aboriginal people.”

Weatherbee also believes the U of C faculty of medicine is on the right track.

“The steps the U of C faculty of medicine is taking will ensure a diverse group of graduating physicians,” said Weatherbee. “This will help service an even more diverse population in Calgary and Alberta.”

Snow thinks having Aboriginal people practice medicine is their own communities is the way to go.

“There is an understanding of how the community functions,” said Snow. “People feel more comfortable if you can speak their language. I look forward to the day that I can speak to a doctor in my own language.”

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