07/09/2012 03:36 EDT | Updated 09/08/2012 05:12 EDT

Funding Aboriginal Students' Schooling Now Will Pay Off Later

Brandon Murdock was a promising Grade 10 student and basketball player with an ambition to be the first in his family to go to university. Unfortunately, like so many First Nations youth, Brandon had one huge obstacle to overcome: the tuition fees.

Brandon's mother was making a reasonable income as a nurse in Winnipeg, however it seemed to Brandon the family's money disappeared as fast as it came in.

His older sister and three brothers were all high school dropouts, so nothing was saved for the children's education. Brandon says his siblings mocked his dreams. "They were always trying to tear me down."

Brandon's drive and potential caught the attention of his summer basketball team manager. Determined to give this boy his chance, he introduced Brandon to the University of Winnipeg's Opportunity Fund.

Universities are often called ivory towers -- elite institutions open only to those who can afford the cost. When Lloyd Axworthy, a former Liberal Member of Parliament and federal cabinet minister, took over as President of the University of Winnipeg in 2004, he resolved to throw open the tower doors to disadvantaged families in the surrounding communities, many of them aboriginal.

"There's an expectation that we do more than just our traditional role," Axworthy told us. "We have a mandate to serve the community."

Under Axworthy, the university launched a raft of community initiatives including computer drop-in centres, mentoring programs, and opening its athletic facilities to community sports leagues.

The university founded a model high school on campus -- the University of Winnipeg Collegiate -- to improve education for disadvantaged local students like Brandon. The Collegiate's graduation rate is an astounding 90 per cent, compared to 50 per cent in other nearby high schools.

The local youth participating in the university programs and attending the Collegiate were stoked about the possibilities for their education, which provoked an unexpected reaction.

"You're ruining my daughter's life!"

Axworthy was floored when the bitter accusation came flying from a mother at a community consultation meeting. The university outreach programs gave her daughter false hope of going to university, the woman cried, something her family could never afford.

"We asked ourselves, how can we deliver on that hope?" says Jennifer Rattray, the university's Associate Vice President of Indigenous, Government and Community Affairs.

The answer was the Opportunity Fund, which turns post-secondary education from pipe dream to real possibility for aboriginal and low income students.

The fund rests on three pillars. The first is a tuition credit where students can earn real dollars towards their university tuition through academic achievement and community involvement.

Since 2010, Brandon has earned $4,000 by improving his high school marks, for each grade he's passed, for playing basketball, and for participating in and helping promote a local tutoring and mentoring program.

"The tuition credit gives kids a tap on the shoulder to say, 'Hey, post secondary education is for you,'" says Kevin Chief, Manitoba's Minister of Children and Youth Opportunities. Before entering government last year, Chief worked at the University of Winnipeg and helped Axworthy create the Opportunity Fund.

The second pillar is a fast-track bursary program that responds to student needs within one to two weeks over the summer and 48 hours through the school year so that students never need to drop out because of a financial emergency.

In 2011, the university added a third initiative to the Opportunity Fund to support the more than 10,000 young people in Manitoba's foster care system, a large percentage of them aboriginal.

"The vast majority will not go on to post secondary education," Rattray sadly notes.

The young people who have been in foster care will have the opportunity to have their tuition waived completely. The provincial government chips in to cover their cost of living.

Rattray says last fall the number of applications from aboriginal students to attend the university rose by 33 per cent.

The fund has already provided more than 850 fast-track bursaries, and 184 young people from Grades 5 to 12 are registered for the tuition credits. Rattray says last fall the number of applications from aboriginal students to attend the university rose by 33 per cent.

This coming fall, the first group of students to benefit from the tuition credits, including Brandon Murdock, will begin their classes.

Brandon has fulfilled his ambition, becoming the first in his family to graduate high school and go on to post-secondary education. He's set his sights on a Bachelor of Arts degree in Criminal Justice and a career with the Winnipeg Police. He's moved out from his family home and is living in residence, his cost of living supported by the university.

President Axworthy is proud of the achievement. "Brandon's success and his goal to become a positive role model in his community serves as an inspiration for me and our entire university community."

Craig and Marc Kielburger co-founded Free The Children, and are authors of the new book Living Me to We: The Guide for Socially Conscious Canadians