Indigenous post-secondary students confused about federal COVID-19 funding support

Indigenous post-secondary students facing financial challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic are giving the federal government's aid announcements mixed reviews. 

Eligibility for emergency student benefit not yet known, Indigenous-specific funding slated for 2021

Tyona Bear from Tobique First Nation is taking Early Childhood Education at the Union of New Brunswick Indians Training Institute in Fredericton. (Submitted by Tyona Bear)

Indigenous post-secondary students facing financial challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic are giving the federal government's aid announcements mixed reviews.

On April 22, the federal government announced $9 billion for a Canada Emergency Student Benefit for post-secondary students and recent graduates affected by COVID-19. 

Details on eligibility, including whether Indigenous students will qualify, are not yet available.

The government has also announced $75.2 million for Indigenous post-secondary student support during the COVID-19 pandemic, described by a spokesperson as a "one-time increase in 2021 to support students through the existing First Nations, Inuit and Métis [post-secondary education] strategy." 

Tyona Bear is from Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick but has been living in Fredericton for the last five years. She is studying Early Childhood Education at the Union of New Brunswick Indians Training Institute.

Bear said even though she receives an allowance of $750 per month, that amount has to cover rent, bills and essentials like food.

Bear tried accessing provincial support through her school, but was informed by her principal that because she is receiving band funding she isn't eligible for New Brunswick's Emergency Bridge Funding for Vulnerable Post-Secondary Students. 

She doesn't qualify for Employment Insurance or the Canada Emergency Support Benefit and details on how to apply for the federal student benefit are not yet available. 

"I have been trying to stay as updated as I can, but I personally don't feel too good about it because it doesn't seem to be too transparent," said Bear. 

The cost of dropping classes

Other students who have received funding from their bands are facing challenges in having to return funds after withdrawing from programs. 

Sheldon McGregor from Kitigan Zibi in Quebec was taking classes at Carleton University for a masters degree but was forced to withdraw due to the pandemic.

As a single father of a five-year-old son, he said school and child care closures made it impossible for him to find the time to do homework. 

"I just dropped the classes to avoid academic penalties," he said.

McGregor was receiving funding from Kitigan Zibi but will now have to pay back funding from the band for the dropped classes.

He was also working as a consultant prior to the economic shut down so he was able to qualify for Employment Insurance. He said he is in a better situation than some other single parents, but it still adds extra pressure. 

Sheldon McGregor from Kitigan Zibi was taking classes at Carleton University in preparation for a master's degree but he was forced to withdraw due to the pandemic. (Submitted by Sheldon Mcgregor)

"I think they're trying to navigate new grounds," said McGregor about the government response so far. 

"I don't think they were necessarily prepared for this. I genuinely think, all in all, they're doing what they can." 

'Students... know what to do with that money' 

Andrea Deleeuw is Métis-Cree from Fort Vermilion, Alta., and in her fourth year of a social work degree at the University of Calgary.

She was doing her practicum with Alberta Health Services when the pandemic hit. The Canadian Association for Social Work Education pulled all practicum students while Deleeuw still had 300 hours to complete. 

However, Deleeuw is still on track to complete her studies and has been transitioning to an online placement that is more of a self-directed study. 

She said the federal government's response to supporting Indigenous post-secondary students has been disappointing so far. 

Andrea Deleeuw is Metis-Cree from Fort Vermilion, Alta., and is in her fourth year of a social work degree with the University of Calgary. (Submitted by Andrea Deleeuw)

"The biggest point of stress I would say is when you can't pay your bills or you're trying to figure out how to balance studying and finances," she said.

The government's announcement of support for Indigenous students through the existing First Nations, Inuit and Métis post-secondary education strategies has left her with questions on how the funding would be used.

"I think the students themselves know what to do with that money," she said.

"I would like to see it in the form of grants or bursaries directly to students and some going to support organizations as well."


Rhiannon Johnson is an Anishinaabe journalist from Hiawatha First Nation based in Toronto. She has been with the Indigenous unit since 2017 focusing on Indigenous life and experiences throughout Ontario. You can reach her at and on Twitter @rhijhnsn.