Indigenous Learning in the Pacific Province: Canada’s Tribal Colleges, Part 1

Aug 20th, 2015 | By | Category: Online features, Web Exclusive
By Leif Gregersen

(Editor’s Note: This the first installment in a four-part, web-exclusive series on First Nation’s colleges and universities in Canada.)

Part 1: Indigenous Learning in the Pacific Province
Part 2: Knowledge Keepers of the Northern Rockies
Part 3: North Stars of the Prairie Provinces


NVIT’s state-of-the-art campus has won several architectural awards.

Across Canada there are a number of tribally owned and controlled colleges. Under the Canadian system, most of these schools are regulated by the respective provincial ministry of advanced education, but still are governed by boards of elders and community leaders with the main goal of serving the educational needs of Canada’s Indigenous population. Canada’s tribal colleges are found in five provinces and one territory—from Ontario in the east to Nunavut in the far north, and in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia. These institutions of higher education are dedicated to preserving and enhancing Native culture and language and to empowering Indigenous students with knowledge and training.

On Canada’s West Coast, in the province of British Columbia, there are two tribal colleges. One is Nicola Valley Institute of Technology (NVIT), which has its main campus in the small city of Merritt and a secondary campus in Vancouver, the province’s largest city and the third largest metropolitan area in Canada. The second is Native Education College (NEC), British Columbia’s largest private Aboriginal college. Although their program offerings differ, both institutions are devoted to the education of First Nations’ peoples.

NVIT’s flagship campus in scenic Merritt is a 90-minute drive northeast of Vancouver, nestled among the forests and tall peaks of the Rocky Mountains. Established in 1983, NVIT is a tribally owned and operated institution. It was founded by five First Nations from the Nicola Valley: the Coldwater, Nooaitch, Shackan, Upper Nicola, and Lower Nicola nations. NVIT is guided by a 15-member council of elders, each of whom comes from a different background and Aboriginal nation in British Columbia.


Established in 1967, NEC is one of the oldest tribal colleges in North America.

NVIT describes itself as a student-centered school grounded in Indigenous culture, tradition, and knowledge that is committed to advancing the students, employees, and the communities that it serves. The institute seeks to engage all learners and members of the NVIT community, and to maintain academic excellence to ensure the widest range of future choices possible for its students. Like other tribal colleges in Canada and the United States, NVIT serves many nontraditional students and has an average student age of 30–35 years old; women account for 75% of the enrolled student body. One possible reason for this high average age could be the unique needs of Native students in the more remote communities of the interior of British Columbia. John Chenoweth, the dean of admissions at NVIT, says that the institute is focused on relationships, and on being innovative and creative in its delivery of services for its student body. NVIT’s mission statement also spells out its foremost values, including respect, accountability, integrity, balance and harmony, growth and development, as well as inclusion and communication in the local communities of Merritt and Vancouver.

The institute’s two campuses are located among some of the most stunning scenery in Canada. Moreover, NVIT’s Merritt campus has won three major architectural awards for its impressive layout. Both the Merritt and Vancouver campuses were designed to provide a safe and culturally supportive environment for the Native students who attend. Two-thirds of the students are from First Nations located in British Columbia, while others come from as far off as the Yukon, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario. One of the aims of the staff at NVIT is to duplicate the community in numbers of students to elders, and to make the college like a home away from home for its 80% Native student body.

NVIT offers 30 different programs, from trade training for aspiring electricians and carpenters, to an Aboriginal speech and language assistant program. The institute offers career training in the fields of health, human services, and business, as well as university transfer programs in criminology, First Nations studies, general arts, and teacher education, as well as a Bachelor of Social Work degree.


Most students at the Native Education College come from the greater Vancouver area, but about 20% come from other First Nations throughout Canada.

Like NVIT, NEC boasts a wide range of trade, college transfer, health care, and business programs. Despite its big-city location in metropolitan Vancouver, NEC offers a culturally rich learning environment with small classes taught in a traditional longhouse. Programming at NEC ranges from the “Starting Points” of adult basic education, to Northwest Coast jewelry arts. Unlike NVIT, NEC is a non-profit private institution governed by a board of directors that combines both tribal elders and professionals. The board comprises over 30 members elected from the NEC Native Education Society, a charitable organization devoted to First Nations education. Board members are community leaders, such as lawyers and accountants, but there are also members from many different tribal nations who serve as representatives of the school and as administrators.

Founded in 1967, NEC prides itself on being founded on principles upheld and set forth by elders from the numerous First Nations which the college serves. The institution has gone through a metamorphosis in recent years, using the elders’ guidance in matters of leadership and accountability, allowing NEC to work towards greater self-governance.

Today, the college hosts between 250 and 280 students, 80% of which are from full-treaty tribal nations. The largest numbers come from tribes in the greater Vancouver area, such as the Coast Salish, Nisga’a, Haida, Kwagiulth, and Tsimshian. The remaining 20% of the student population is predominantly Métis and Inuit.

NEC takes care of its students, offering many community services, including assistance with housing, daycare, emergency food, and finding employment. The college also assists with legal problems and is home to an Aboriginal friendship center and a program called Warriors Against Violence. NEC provides counseling and offers an “Elders in Residence” program that enables students to speak to and learn from elders two days per week. Because of the pivotal and large-scale role that elders play at NEC, the college recognizes their importance and service through an annual Elders Day, where students honor them with gifts and speeches.


Elders play a pivotal role in student life at NEC, offering guidance, wisdom, and even counseling.

NEC has men’s and women’s basketball programs and a First Nations drumming and a singing program, which the college deems essential to the well-being of students who may have grown up disconnected from their culture, or for those who wish for greater connection to the culture of their home communities.

For Native students who wish to consider studies in British Columbia, both NEC and NVIT are excellent options. The province itself is a vast and beautiful place with great cultural diversity. And the city of Vancouver particularly is determined that its Indigenous population has a voice and a firm place in the community. The city is home to a plethora of Native art galleries and its world-class museum of anthropology (on the campus of the University of British Columbia) displays works from Indigenous peoples throughout British Columbia and the world. Vancouver is a vibrant, multicultural city characterized by strong Native influences, and several First Nations are situated in the Vancouver metropolitan area.

Opportunities to transfer credit from NVIT or NEC to other post-secondary institutions are abundant. Many students have gone on to attend the top-ranked Simon Fraser University, the University of British Columbia, or the University of Victoria. Whether or not students decide to transfer, Nicola Valley Institute of Technology and the Native Education College foster self-respect, self-esteem, and academic, vocational, cultural, and spiritual learning that will enrich their lives.

Leif Gregersen is an author and public speaker who grew up north of Edmonton in the small city of St. Albert. He has a strong connection to the North and runs a blog at:

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