The best is yet to come: Aboriginal teacher education programs thriving


By Ashleigh Mattern

Orest Murawsky said the Indian Teacher Education Program (ITEP) has a saying: “You have to know who you are and where you come from before you know where you’re going.

“And that’s why ITEP is so successful,” said Murawsky (BA’71, BEd’74, MEd’75), ITEP director. “[Students] come here, and sometimes they really don’t know who they are, but we think after they’re done the process of becoming a teacher, they really understand that connection.”

The Saskatchewan Urban Native Teacher Education Program (SUNTEP) has a similar philosophy. Program co-ordinator Murray Hamilton (BA’88) said some students come to SUNTEP with very little knowledge of their own history, and their participation in the program can have lasting effects.

ITEP and SUNTEP are University of Saskatchewan teacher education programs that include a focus on learning First Nations and Métis histories and cultures respectively.

“It’s a life changing experience for a lot of our students,” said Hamilton. “They become extremely proud of who they are, what their ancestors contributed to the development of Canada and this province.”

Joanne Marchildon (BEd’96) graduated from the SUNTEP program and now works as an artist and art teacher. She said she grew up in a town where being Métis wasn’t necessarily something to be proud of, and SUNTEP was an important turning point in her life.

“It broadened my horizons so much,” she explained. “I don’t hesitate to let people know now; it’s really done that for me, and I’m really grateful for that. It changes how you feel about yourself.”

For Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations Vice-Chief Simon Bird (BEd’03, MEd’11), an ITEP graduate, the program was also a life-changing experience, sparking his interest in First Nations politics.

“When you go to a program like ITEP that’s centralized in Saskatoon, you really come across a range of First Nations people, and you

ITEP celebrates 40 years

ITEP is a program in the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Education. The university grants the degree, while ITEP provides the programming.

“The mandate of the ITEP program is to produce the best First Nations teachers possible, but it’s also to preserve language, culture and tradition within the context of the bachelor of education,” said Murawsky.

The program was established in 1972- 73, shortly after the Indian Control of Indian Education policy statement was adopted by the federal government. It was the first of its kind and set the model for the delivery of such programs nationwide.

This year marks the program’s 40th anniversary. Today, ITEP has more than 1,500 graduates with a bachelor of education degree, over 200 with their masters and about half a dozen with a doctorate.

Murawsky has been with the program since the beginning, and he said ITEP has become a family of educators. “In some schools, 80 per cent of the teachers that are teaching in the schools are ITEP graduates. When we go to a community like, say, Thunderchild [First Nation], right from the principal down, it’s all ITEP graduates, so it’s like going home.”

The program has also taken on the role of delivering education to communities across Saskatchewan and in the central and western Arctic. They currently have five sites that deliver the four-year bachelor of education degree right on the reserve, and next year they are adding two more sites.

The program at Onion Lake Cree Nation just saw its first batch of students graduate this spring. Those students participated in a Cree immersion education program, the first of its kind from the U of S and possibly even in Canada, according to Murawsky.

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SUNTEP: A Métis-specific education program

SUNTEP is a partnership between the Gabriel Dumont Institute and the University of Saskatchewan. The program is offered in Prince Albert, Regina, and Saskatoon.

The program was established after a conference was held in Saskatoon in 1976 to address high attrition rates among Métis students. One of the ideas was the creation of a Métis-specific education program, and by 1980, SUNTEP was ready to roll.

“Between all three locations, we have a thousand plus graduates who are impacting thousands and thousands of students every day,” said Hamilton. “I see in the schools evidence of Métis culture, Métis history and Métis artifacts that you never would have seen 30 years ago.”

SUNTEP and ITEP have a similar structure: they create a network for their students through supportive teachers and staff, they offer smaller class sizes and they group students with the same classmates throughout their studies. Hamilton said these same-year cohorts help to lessen the sense of isolation some students feel.

This approach seems to be garnering positive attention from more traditional programs. According to Hamilton, the College of Education has taken a page out of “the TEPs’” books in recent years by including more student teaching, more experiential learning and cohorts.

An important distinction for ITEP and SUNTEP is that both are direct entry programs. “We think that’s the preferential way to have a teacher education program,” Hamilton said. “It allows people to obtain experiential learning in schools right from the beginning.”

Regular admission to the College of Education is non-direct entry, requiring a minimum of 60 credit units, or two years, of post-secondary courses.

The best is yet to come

When Bird entered ITEP in 1999, city life was still new to him. He was born and raised in the northern community of Southend, Sask. and is a member of the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation.

“Coming from a small, isolated northern reservation, it takes a while to adjust, and the professors and the staff members made it feel like a community,” he said.

He believes having a separate program like ITEP for First Nations people is important because of that extra support.

“I’ve seen many, many brilliant students not [complete] post-secondary because they felt alone; they didn’t feel a sense of support,” he said.

Both programs have their eye on expansion. Murawsky says he is hoping ITEP will have 500 students by 2015, and he would like to see 1,000 students enrolled in the near future.

Hamilton would like to see SUNTEP expand to include more involvement in graduate studies and more course development. He would also like to see the Gabriel Dumont Institute develop new opportunities for Métis students.

“We have lots of Métis students who want to do other things than teach, so we need to help them attain that. We need more opportunities in arts and sciences and other colleges.”

The future for both programs looks bright. Aboriginal education is one of the pillars of the University of Saskatchewan’s third integrated plan, and Murawsky says that in the 40 plus years he has been with the program, support for ITEP from the College of Education has never been so strong.

“I’m extremely proud of what our graduates have accomplished and continue to accomplish, and I think the best is yet to come,” said Hamilton.

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