‘Now is the time for choosing reconciliation’: how Nadia Belokopitov started an Indigenous scholarship

Oct 24, 2023
Nadia Belokopitov, Walter Simpson and Robert Nadjiwon smiling together.
Nadia Belokopitov (centre) in 2019 with the inaugural Innis College Admission Scholarship for Indigenous Peoples recipients, Walter Simpson (left) and Robert Nadjiwon (right). Photo by Chiao Sun

Several years ago, Nadia Belokopitov (BA 1997 Innis) wrote a letter from her heart. Decorated with beautiful Indigenous art, the top of the letter features a striking carving of two wolf heads—a Haida Nation symbol of teachers, healing and perseverance.

Healing, perseverance and a good teacher: that sums up Belokopitov’s story.

In the letter, Belokopitov thanks Innis College Principal Charlie Keil for helping her succeed in university. “You changed the course of my life,” she writes. After she earned an honours degree in cinema studies at the University of Toronto, she went on to become a federal negotiator, a TV producer, an entrepreneur and a member of boards that work toward reconciliation.

She also founded, together with Keil, U of T’s Innis Admission Scholarship for Indigenous Peoples. And today, Belokopitov is setting up a bequest in her will to grow the award. “It’s something I’m very proud of,” she says. “Everybody knows how important this scholarship is to me.”

A small stick carved with a wolf head on each end in the art style of West Coast First Nations.
Artwork provided by Tamara Bell

Perseverance: how Nadia Belokopitov fought for her education

“There are really only two questions for Indigenous kids,” says Belokopitov. “Was it your parent or grandparent who went to residential school?”

For Belokopitov, it was her mother, a member of the Haida Nation in British Columbia who was taken from her family and tortured for speaking her own language. That trauma followed her lifelong and affected all her children. “We lived in abject poverty in dangerous neighbourhoods after my parents divorced,” says Belokopitov. “There were no support mechanisms in place.” She left home at 16 to escape.

Belokopitov describes herself in her late 20s as “very lost.” She decided she needed to go to university and applied to U of T. Denied admission at first, she fought for her place.

There are really only two questions for Indigenous kids. Was it your parent or grandparent who went to residential school?

“I sat in front of the appeal board—three white people—and told them my story and they let me in. On academic probation,” she says. “By December I was failing everything. I applied myself, but I didn’t know how to educate myself.” She approached one of her younger cinema studies professors, Keil. “He said, bluntly, ‘It’s not the teachers, it’s you. You can’t write’.”

There are really only two questions for Indigenous kids. Was it your parent or grandparent who went to residential school?

Belokopitov went outside and screamed in frustration. But then she reached deep within. Keil had also offered to help. “All I’ve got is this opportunity,” she told herself. “I went home and I sat at my desk and I went right to work.”

A good teacher: ‘Nadia, how can we implement Truth and Reconciliation?’

All through the next semester, Belokopitov worked with Keil. Email didn’t exist yet—she would call his home and read her work over the phone to him. “I could hear his kid in the background, but I don’t remember him ever saying ‘I can’t take your call’. And by the end of the year, I was getting Bs and As on all my papers. I’d only had one person who ever believed in me like that.”

Belokopitov graduated with honours. And she stayed in touch with Keil. Years later, at a lunch in Toronto, he asked her an important question: “Nadia, how can we implement Truth and Reconciliation at U of T?”

“Without even thinking, I said ‘you need to start a First Nations scholarship’.”

In 2019, Keil raised an initial $25,000, enough to endow two $500-scholarships for first-year students. When he told Belokopitov, she volunteered at once to help raise more. She asked people to donate and sent each benefactor a handwritten thank-you note and Haida art. “In my culture, when an act of generosity is bestowed upon you, it is protocol for you to honour that individual with twice the amount of kindness,” she says.

The scholarship now supports up to five recipients each year, but Belokopitov wants to do more. Because of unique—and antiquated—laws about the Haida land in Vancouver where she has a home, she needs to ensure she doesn’t delay making a will. “If I pass away intestate, the Minister of Indigenous Services takes over my estate,” she says.

Obviously, she’d rather direct her own legacy—hence the bequest to U of T. Belokopitov says it’s very meaningful to be in a place where she can help others rise.

“You know we don’t have generational wealth. And in my community, you don’t talk about your education, because so many people can’t get one. My people are more concerned with making it to the next day, affording groceries,” she says. “But I had luck and didn’t let the opportunity go by the wayside. It’s nothing short of a miracle.”

Healing: honouring past generations, lifting the next

Education gave Belokopitov a voice, humble but strong. She used it when she set up a paver in the Landmark Project, which is transforming the St. George campus core into a greener, more sustainable, accessible and pedestrian-friendly space. “I requested that it say, ‘To Honour Residential School Survivors’,” she says. There were guidelines that you had to honour one person. “I said, ‘How can you do this? My mother went to residential school. They just found the 215 graves. Now is the time for choosing reconciliation.’ And they agreed.”

A paving stone engraved with the words: To Honour Residential School Survivors, N Belakopitov

Nadia Belokopitov’s Landmark Project paver honours Survivors like her mother.

She hopes the next generation will continue her work.

“When I attended a graduation as a board representative in Vancouver recently, I wore my Coastal Salish hat and regalia and looked out at all the Native graduates. And I thought, ‘You need to take my place.’ We’re hoping that young people will come and be board members and create more diversity. That will happen when more Indigenous people go to university and get help along the way.”

A paving stone engraved with the words: To Honour Residential School Survivors, N Belakopitov

Nadia Belokopitov’s Landmark Project paver honours Survivors like her mother.

If you would like to donate to Indigenous scholarships through your will, please visit the gift planning website or reach out to Michelle Osborne at michelle.osborne@utoronto.ca.

Learn how to make a bequest