A northern teaching program resurfaces amid teacher shortage in northern Sask.

The Northern Indigenous Teachers Education Program is aimed at training northerners to teach in their communities.

Northern Indigenous Teachers Education Program aims to train northerners to teach in their communities

Students attending a class at NORTEP, which shut down in July 2017. Now, a program is being offered by the Lac La Ronge Indian Band and Gabriel Dumont Institute to train northerners to teach in northern Saskatchewan. (April Chiefcalf)

Simon Bird said there has always been a challenge in convincing teachers from southern parts of the province to live and teach in northern Saskatchewan. 

So instead, Bird, the education director for the Lac La Ronge Indian Band, said the band and the Gabriel Dumont Institute are looking to train northerners to become educators in their communities.

"I don't think it's a big surprise that we've always had a hard time attracting teachers to the north," Bird said of the Northern Indigenous Teachers Education Program, which is being offered in La Ronge later this year.

In the past, the provincially funded Northern Teachers Education Program (NORTEP) and Northern Professional Access College (NORPAC) program, which began in the 1970s, had trained northerners to teach in their home communities.

The Saskatchewan government announced in 2016 that it would cut funding to the program, and it closed the next year.

Northlands College was tapped with filling the gap and a shortage of teachers in the north, but there was something missing.

"I think what was missing is having our own First Nations perspective, our own First Nations local instructors really take the driver's seat and attract our Indigenous teachers," Bird said.

Part of the problem of attracting people from the south and getting them to stay was helping them to see the north in the same way northerners see it.

"The value, the uniqueness, the deep history and the family connections — it's always a lot easier when you know the people that are going to be working at their schools have a sense of comfort, and a sense of obligation and a sense of connection to the students," said Bird, a former educator himself.

Simon Bird, education director for Lac La Ronge Indian Band, said there is a challenge in getting people from the south to see northern Saskatchewan the way northerners do. (Simon Bird/Facebook)

Teaching shortage in north

A connection like that is pertinent, especially now, as the Northern Lights School Division is dealing with a shortage of teachers, according to Geordy McCaffrey.

"Basically, what we wanted to do is we wanted to train local people to take on teaching vacancies in the north," said McCaffrey, the executive director of the Gabriel Dumont Institute. 

"And those people, we wanted to train them to be Métis and First Nations cultural experts, so that they could connect and share culture with 95 per cent of the school system that is Indigenous in the north."

The Northern Lights division covers the entirety of northern Saskatchewan, with schools stretching from Uranium City to La Loche to Weyakwin, for example. 

"Many of the teachers that [the school division] do have now are brought in from other jurisdictions in other provinces, and so we just felt that there was a better homegrown option," McCaffrey said.

"Our folks are looking for work. So, it just made sense to train Métis and First Nations people to teach their own kids." 

Both the Institute and the Lac La Ronge Indian Band will help out with the cost of tuition and fees, as well.

When it comes to the cost of the program, there's more to it than dollars and cents, said Bird. The ultimate goal of the program is to have students remain in the north and see northern schools as their first choice for teaching.

The program will take in around 25 to 30 applicants, but there have been about 70 applications so far. The preliminary costs so far are about $20,000 per year for each student, but could change based on each student's circumstances.

With files from Chelsea Laskowski