According to a new report by U of S economist Eric Howe, teachers educated through the Saskatchewan Urban Native Teacher Education Program (SUNTEP) are worth their weight in gold — assuming the average weight of a North American is 180 pounds.

"To buy 180 pounds of gold will cost you a lot of money — $3.2 million," said Howe.

"The economic impact of a graduate of SUNTEP, their effect on the prosperity of the province, even in the low scenario, the lowest number I got was $11 million."

Howe's report is called SUNTEP: An investment in Saskatchewan's prosperity. 

Teachers have been trained through SUNTEP since the 1980s and are offered smaller class sizes and special support. The number of Indigenous teachers in Saskatchewan has grown as a result.

"The teachers are learning their foundation, the base of who they are. They have a good identity," said Norman Fleury, a Métis elder who guest lectures at the University of Saskatchewan's education program.

"It can be carried on in terms of the children. They'll know who they are."

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Norman Fleury, a lecturer in the University of Saskatchewan's education program, is a graduate of a program similar to SUNTEP. He believes the opportunity was integral to his academic and professional success. (Bridget Yard/CBC)

Howe calls this the "role model effect," when Indigenous teachers inspire their students to continue on with their education.

To quantify the effect, Howe organized the data into three scenarios, differing by teacher impact: low, medium, and high impacts.

"A given teacher would affect a student once every 10 years in the low scenario, and once every two years in the high."

The increase in lifetime earnings of students influenced by teachers from the SUNTEP program was $1.2 billion, on the low end.

Bridging the gap for Indigenous learners - and women

Howe measures the benefit of closing the employment and education gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in dollars.

The lifetime earnings of non-Indigenous people who obtain a bachelor's degree or higher are approximately $1.8 million for males and $1.7 million for females.

For Indigenous people at the top end of the education spectrum, potential earnings are approximately $100,000 less than those of non-Indigenous people.

Métis men have the highest potential lifetime earnings at almost $2 million with a bachelor's degree.

At the other end of the spectrum, female Indigenous high school dropouts have potential to earn only $237,000 in their lifetime.

"In our economy, an uneducated male does not have the opportunity of an educated male, but an uneducated male has more opportunities than an uneducated female," said Howe.

"The financial return to education is huge for everyone, but higher for females than it is for males, because they make up that gap."

The benefit is not just for the individual. If Indigenous people in Saskatchewan attained the same level of education as non-Indigenous people, the benefit to the province would be enormous, he said.

"Nearly $100 billion," said Howe.

"The highest level of GDP in the entire history of Saskatchewan was $74.9 billion."

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'The economic impact of a graduate of SUNTEP, their effect on the prosperity of the province, even in the low scenario, the lowest number I got, was $11 million,' said economist Eric Howe.

More work to do 

Indigenous employment is growing faster than non-Indigenous employment in Saskatchewan, but Howe warns in his report that this isn't cause for celebration — yet.

He writes the growth "needs to be the case as Saskatchewan's population becomes increasingly Indigenous."

The province's population will be 50 per cent Indigenous by 2050. Today's rate of growth would put Indigenous employment at 16.9 per cent in 2050, at the highest.

High school graduation rates are climbing, too, but progress is also slow.

The Ministry of Education released Saskatchewan graduation rates earlier this week, showing marginal improvement for Indigenous learners. The graduation rate for First Nations, Métis and Inuit students increased to 43.2 per cent last year from 41.9 per cent in 2015-2016.

The provincial goal is to have 65 per cent of Indigenous students graduate on time by 2020.

"The principal benefit will incur from increasing the number of Indigenous students going to university, but high school completion would be a really big thing," said Howe.

Norman Fleury graduated from a program similar to SUNTEP in the 1970s in Manitoba.

It gave him leverage to go into the community, obtain employment, and "make right choices."

"They wouldn't have had the opportunity otherwise," he said of SUNTEP graduates.

As a lecturer and mentor to students in the program, Fleury has seen the difference in student confidence and impact.

"We are taking the initiative to talk about ourselves. We are now the authors."