EDMONTON—The University of Alberta is tossing out a three-decade-old quota on students entering its medical program through the Indigenous stream.
Tibetha Kemble, director of the U of A faculty of medicine and dentistry’s Indigenous Health Initiative Program (IHIP), said the change is aimed at bringing more Indigenous students in the program.
“The number of Indigenous students who are interested in the program and submit applications for admission to our program have increased steadily over time,” Kemble said.
“This enables us going forward to consider the entire pool who do apply.”
Indigenous students applying to the MD program have the same academic eligibility requirements as other students, but those who are invited for interviews have the option of undergoing an additional interview process with a panel of elders and Indigenous community members and physicians.
Since 1988, the U of A has had a cap of five Indigenous students who can be admitted through that process, out of 165 total students, though other Indigenous applicants could still be considered under general admission.
Going forward, there is no limit to the number of Indigenous students who are eligible through the subcommittee.
Nicole Labine, a fourth-year medical student at the U of A who is Métis, said having the additional interview gave her a chance to highlight her resilience, her commitment to serve remote Indigenous populations in the future, and the challenges she faced to even apply for the program.
Labine led the charge among students to have the quota removed, and said the change represents a “giant step forward” for the university.
“I think the biggest advantage is, as a student, having the opportunity to explain my history, and put within context the barriers that I have overcome prior to attending and applying medical school,” she said.
Labine grew up in Fort Smith, N.W.T., and plans to move back to the territories to work in the medical field after she graduates and completes her residency.
She said it’s been challenging to be isolated from her culture and community for years while getting her undergraduate and medical degrees.
“I think my biggest barriers were coming from a very small, remote, isolated community, and then having to move away to achieve an undergraduate education because I don’t have any universities in the Northwest Territories at which to attend school,” she said.
“I think those are huge barriers for a lot of students — just not having access to education or even to the courses that allow you to apply into an undergraduate degree. I had to beg my high school principal to offer calculus so that I could even apply to get into undergraduate school.”
Shirley Schipper, the U of A’s vice dean of education, said the move is in line with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s call to action for all levels of government to increase the number of Indigenous professionals working in the health-care field.
To further that goal, the MD program will also introduce four new full-tuition scholarships to Indigenous students starting in September.
Kemble said when the five-person quota was introduced, its intent was actually to increase the number of Indigenous students, who rarely applied for the medical program at the time, by setting space aside.
Since then, she said, it’s become outdated.
“At that time, I think setting aside five spots was really meaningful. Because there were so few Indigenous peoples in post-secondary and entering into the medical profession,” Kemble said.
“But over time, it has become a limitation. We have such an immense, talented pool of candidates applying to our program every single year.”
Kemble said university officials considered incremental changes to the program, such as admitting 10 or 15 Indigenous students per year instead of five, but ultimately opted to remove the upper limit altogether.
She said the fact the quota system is no longer needed is a positive sign.
“I think it really speaks to our resilience. Thirty or 40 years ago, there were just a handful of Indigenous peoples completing post-secondary, and very, very few medical professionals,” she said. “And now it’s just a growing population, a critical mass of Indigenous peoples doing this work.”
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Kevin Maimann is an Edmonton-based reporter covering education and marijuana legalization. Follow him on Twitter: @TheMaimann