Indigenous students could benefit from program funding to address pandemic learning loss

Monday, August 9th, 2021 8:09am


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Marieke Vandekolk, TD’s manager of corporate citizenship


“What we’re hoping is that we will see Indigenous organizations putting forward applications that are going to respond to the need in their communities because they are the ones best suited to speak to that.” —Marieke Vandekolk, TD’s manager of corporate citizenship
By Sam Laskaris
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Charitable and not-for-profit organizations that have specific plans prepared to battle student learning loss caused by pandemic restrictions are being sought to benefit from a $10 million grant initiative.

This marks the fourth year of the TD Ready Challenge, which is part of the bank’s global corporate citizenship platform called the TD Ready Commitment.

Since the inception of the challenge in 2018, a total of $10 million (Canadian) has been awarded each year to organizations throughout Canada and the United States to help them respond to various issues in society.

For 2021, challenge officials are looking to specifically support organizations that are working on solutions to address the predicted learning loss caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in math and reading, for students who are in Kindergarten through Grade 12.

Research has proven that virtual learning can be even more challenging for those students who do not have decent access to technology, a private space to learn, and/or proper teacher supervision.

As a result, challenge officials are especially keen to work with organizations that have specific plans to improve the fortunes of four groups, including Indigenous and racialized students.

Organizations are also being sought that will work with students from low-income households, students with limited access to Internet and students with disabilities.

Grant applications will be accepted until Aug. 26 and are available at

Marieke Vandekolk, who is based in Toronto and is TD’s manager of corporate citizenship, said she is well aware of the need to improve educational resources in Indigenous communities. She earned a master’s degree in public policy and political governance at the University of Windsor and did her thesis research on the challenges facing education in Indigenous communities.

“It’s an area that is very near and dear to me,” Vandekolk said. “Before the pandemic there was already a learning gap, a 15 percentage points difference in graduation rates between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians. And so, when things like this happen that really throw a wrench into learning systems or normal learning systems, there is an increased need.”

Vandekolk is uncertain just how many applications the challenge will receive this year from organizations that will be aiming to assist Indigenous students and communities.

“It’s something that we are widely sharing as much as we can and inviting Indigenous organizations to come forward and put their applications in,” she said.

Grants vary in size from $375,000 to $1 million each. There were a total of 15 grant recipients in 2020.

Three of the recipients from a year ago were from organizations whose work focused on Indigenous communities.

They were Canadian Feed The Children, University of British Columbia (UBC) and the University of Saskatchewan.

“They were helping to revitalize Indigenous peoples’ food and land-based knowledge,” Vandekolk said of the Canadian Feed The Children charity.

UBC has a community drone-transport initiative that was being tested to see the feasibility of enhancing access to health-care services, labs, pharmacies and supplies in communities greatly impacted by the pandemic.

“They also have an emergency response initiative,” Vandekolk said of the University of Saskatchewan. “And they were focused really on cultural safety and gender training and support in emergency rooms. And that one was done in partnership with the First Nations and Métis Health Research Network out of the Prairies.”

Vandekolk is hoping several organizations will submit applications to once again assist those in Indigenous communities this year.

“What we’re hoping is that we will see Indigenous organizations putting forward applications that are going to respond to the need in their communities because they are the ones best suited to speak to that,” she said. “They are familiar with the need and how to provide culturally relative and appropriate programming.”

Each year, the TD Ready Challenge invites groups to submit applications offering solutions for a problem statement that is connected to one of the four drivers of change for the TD Ready Commitment. Those four drivers of change are financial security, vibrant planet, connected communities and better health. 

This marks the second consecutive year TD officials have asked for applications during the ongoing pandemic.

“COVID is obviously a health crisis but it’s had many, many other fallout effects as a result,” Vandekolk said. “And so last year’s question was in response to that great need.”

Challenge officials are concentrating on specific eligibility requirements in 2021.

“This year we’re really focusing in on under financial security there’s a focus area called early learning,” Vandekolk added. “And we expanded the definition of what we typically fund because it is a separate opportunity through the Ready Challenge.

“There’s a real recognition and a realization that a year-and-a-half of children being in very abnormal learning environments has wreaked a lot of havoc in the education systems, caused a lot of stresses for parents, kids, teachers and so the difference between last year and this year is that we’re getting very specific with focusing in on the predictive learning loss that research has called out.”

Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.