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Toronto Aboriginal Studies Program enjoys watershed year

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TORONTO ? The Aboriginal Studies Program of the University of Toronto this year has taken a big step forward, hiring three professors to teach a growing number of students signing up to learn about Canada's First Nations.

"This year is just a real watershed year for us," said program director Keren Rice, noting that for the first time since its inception in 1994 the program will have a regular faculty, rather than stipend-paid instructors.

One of the professors is teaching fulltime in Aboriginal studies, while the other two (one will start next July) are splitting their duties with other departments.

Rice said between 180 and 200 students are enrolled in the eight or so Aboriginal studies courses being offered, about a quarter to a third of them are Natives. She noted "very strong support" for the university program.

Students are supporting it as well. By its third year, the program was successful enough to offer a major. Now it offers major and minor concentrations and there is pressure to add a third level called "specialist" ? a feature of Canadian universities, but in the United States.

Aboriginal studies is an interdisciplinary program of the University College with students able to choose anthropology, English, history and other departmental courses with some Native content.

Some 30 students have chosen to major or minor in the program, Rice said. The professor of linguistics said she believes having the program helps attract Native students to the university.

Rice said Aboriginal studies grew out of a 1980s task force to determine the university's responsibility to the Native people of Canada. From that study grew her program and First Nations House, an academic support effort for Native students with which the program works.

The curriculum has grown considerably since its first year when there were just two courses split between the linguistics and anthropology departments. One was an Ojibwe language course, the other on oral traditions and culture.

Now there are courses on Oral Traditions, Ojibwe 1, Ojibwe 2, Oneida language, Aboriginal Crafts, Aboriginal Legends, Introduction to Aboriginal Studies, and the (Canadian) Indian Act, Rice said. Ojibwe 1 has become so popular students are turned away.

The instructors are Native, with most being Ojibwe, but one from the Acoma pueblo in New Mexico, she said.

Half of the students who take "Introduction to Aboriginal Studies" go on to take another in the program, she said.

All university students are required to be double majors and Rice said Aboriginal student majors also major in complementary concentrations like anthropology and history. But some combinations are unusual, like a double major in chemistry.

Native students in the program tend to be older than average, first-generation college students and to take longer to complete degrees, she said.

Rice noted that Toronto has a large Native population of about 80,000. As a professor of linguistics, Rice is especially interested in Native languages and has done a lot of scholarly work in the area. She wrote a grammar of Slave, a Native tongue of Canada, but is worried that, as in the United States, many languages are dying out.

A recent study said only three Canadian Native languages are likely to survive: Ojibwe, Cree and Inuktitut, she said. Native people living in remote areas are more likely to be active users of traditional languages, increasing chances their children will speak them as well, Rice said.