Bearspaw First Nation celebrates students with first round of trust scholarships

Bearspaw First Nation is investing in future generations, announcing the first round of Ozîja Thiha Education Trust (OTET) scholarship recipients last month.

A total of 79 post-secondary, high school and adult students, received awards totalling $34,100 from revenue on a capital investment the Nation made in setting up the OTET in February.

The education trust follows in the footsteps of creating the Ozîja Thiha Legacy Trust in August 2021, after the Nation won its fight against the federal government to control its own oil and gas royalties.

“[Chief and council] set up that trust to keep royalties forever and invest them for future generations,” said Bearspaw CEO Robb Shotclose. “They also set up the education trust to grow a separate pot of money, because we can’t just depend on Indigenous Services Canada to support our education needs … they have limits on their funding, and the price of everything is going up.”

Adding tuition costs – which are also rising – to the current cost of living can be a difficult hurdle for many people in pursuit of higher education.

Shotclose said chief and council hope the trust can ease some of the burden now with its initial $50,000 capital investment and eventually grow the trust through interest, investments and donations, to a point where it can support all qualifying students sustainably.

Many entities working for the Nation, Bearspaw-owned businesses and other organizations made contributions to OTET this past year, with all awards being named after donors.

“It’s a really positive initiative and it’s taken a lot of work to get off the ground, but it’s something we can hopefully grow and streamline to become more efficient to manage,” Shotclose said.

Future plans include establishing a complete student database where band members can enter and update their education details and other related information, with the intent of making applications and selections for scholarships easier for all.

Donations and future monies collected through court settlements, such as land claims, are likely to make the biggest difference in the rate the trust can provide, Shotclose noted. At present, the trust can only award students with interest payments and donations made on the $50,000 investment, which cannot be touched.

Shotclose said Bearspaw chief and council looked to Samson Cree Nation and other First Nations who have been successful in establishing sizable education funds available to Nation members pursuing diplomas, certificates, degrees, trade tickets and PhDs.

“Samson started 35-40 years ago and their education trust is now into $40 million, so they have a lot of revenue that’s being produced from that capital,” he said. “We started small with $50,000 capital, but we were also able to source out a lot of donations to help it grow.”

Census data shows that Indigenous peoples face more disparity in educational attainment than non-Indigenous people, despite a recent rise in Indigenous enrolment and completion of post-secondary programs.

According to the 2016 census, the proportion of non-Indigenous men and women with a bachelor’s degree or higher compared to Indigenous men and women was significantly higher. For women, there was a difference of 32 per cent to 14, and for men, 27 per cent to 8.

In a message shared from Chief Darcy Dixon on the trust’s website, he said the OTET and more investment into learning opportunities are what is needed to ensure a secure future for its young people, and one where the Nation’s economic interests are responsibly and thoughtfully sustained for years to come.

“Our Ozîja Thiha Education Trust will assist, financially support and celebrate our students who represent the future of the Bearspaw First Nation,” the chief’s message reads.

“The [trust] is another ‘tool’ in our kit that will assist us and help ensure the future of our Nation is promising and bright.”

Jessica Lee, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Rocky Mountain Outlook