The Northern Teacher Education Program (NORTEP) in Saskatchewan, Canada commenced in 1976 to facilitate access to teacher education and certification for northerners, particularly those of Aboriginal ancestry.
It covers tuition costs, books, and a living allowance for students who have lived in the north for 10 years or half their life.
By most accounts, it has been a success. Which is why the recent decision to cut funding to NORTEP and transfer its $3.4 million in funding to another institution, has raised somber questions about the priorities of the Wall government.
According to Saskatchewan’s Advanced Education Minister Bronwyn Eyre, the decision was “about equity … it’s not about necessarily getting rid of the bursary structure.”
Unfortunately, this signals tremendous lack of forethought. The optics are dreadful, especially at a moment when Colton Bushie weighs on the hearts and minds of many in the province. And the decision also carelessly flies in the face of ongoing tragedies in Northern communities, including suicides, shootings, and missing women.
More than that, Saskatchewan has garnered international attention in the pages of The Atlantic magazine for its ground-breaking (but long overdue) approach to Aboriginals in higher education. The NORTEP decision is a step backward.
In short, the long-term benefits of the program should be weighed up more sensibly. Luckily, there are useful historical lessons to draw from.
In June 1987, pennies were being pinched. The “great barbeque was over,” according to the NDP’s Janice McKinnon, and the “bills for the wild spending were coming due.”
The Saskatchewan Urban Native Teacher Education Program (SUNTEP) identified the need for a review of the program’s progress. Worried about cuts and reallocations, SUNTEP reached out to experts in education.
One of those was Ruben Richert, a former teacher, principal, and past-president of the Saskatchewan Teachers Federation. In 1987, he was asked to evaluate the program and produce a report on its sustainability in the province’s educational eco-system.
SUNTEP ran in Prince Albert, Regina, and Saskatoon, and operated out of the Gabriel Dumont Institute. For Director James McNinch, it offered a “measure of control and participation in the education of Native teachers and Native children and in the maintenance and affirmation of a cultural identity which prevents assimilation of the minority culture.”
In a period of provincial fiscal restraint, there was significant concern that programs such as SUNTEP might be “erroneously regarded as expendable frills or fringes” and money could be shunted elsewhere.
The 52-page report evaluating SUNTEP determined that the social costs of cuts to the program could be far more expensive in the long-term than the program dollars involved.
A number of recommendations for improvement were made, and the need for introspection was underlined. But the ultimate conclusion held that:
“The question as to whether there is a need for a program like SUNTEP should not have to be asked…We know it is an investment that actually bears interest rather than being a drain on the economy.”
At the time, Grant Devine’s Progressive Conservatives used privatization and public-service reduction to shrink the government. And Devine pointed to the financial necessity of restraint in the province. Over 1,100 civil servants were offered early retirement.
The budget of 1987-88 saw an absolute decline in spending of roughly five percent. Yet, he included an 11 percent increase for education. He did not undermine SUNTEP’s ability to operate at its current service levels.
The NDP often takes credit for SUNTEP and NORTEP, and deservedly so. But it should be noted there was often general bipartisan agreement – if not absolute harmony – about the value of these programs.
This seems far from the case in the present. Budgets have been cut for Saskatoon’s Lighthouse homeless shelter, and the same is true for the Saskatchewan Assured Income for Disability (SAID) program and the general Saskatchewan Assistance Program (SAP). Pinching pennies is one thing, but as Murray Mandryk argued, it’s wise not to be pound foolish.
If NORTEP plays a role in minimizing alienation and redressing lack of educational options in the North, the program should be maintained.
The 1987 report framed SUNTEP’s usefulness as a minor way of “helping to maintain a culture and heritage and preventing assimilation.”
It wasn’t big money, but the results were important. Much the same can be said of NORTEP. It would be advantageous to let the BBQ continue.