Education LearningFranklin Ballantyne bears down on career planning during the Ready to Work session at Island Falls.
The camp trailers at the Island Falls hydroelectric dam create a pocket of comfort amid raw boreal wilderness. Heavy snowfall, late into the spring, amplifies the sense of security the pre-fabricated living quarters and kitchens provide. In a long room designated as a games and recreation area, tables are being set out in classroom formation. Coffee is perking on a table by the door; pencils and paper are placed by each seat. There is a slight tension here this Monday morning. A lot is at stake.
Five hours into the drive from Saskatoon the day before we saw the first buildings at Pelican Narrows. They were as colourless as the forest itself in the smothered light of a late spring snowfall. Children, young men and women, and dogs walked on the road without looking up. Houses were draped in fresh clean drifts and the unlit windows—the ones not covered with plywood—looked stark and gaping. We kept driving north. The road to Island Falls bypassed Sandy Bay, the last community on the road, and we arrived at dusk.
The room fills with the first group to arrive from Sandy Bay. The reserve community is home to roughly 2,500 Cree residents. Twenty of them were selected from a pile of applications to come to the camp five days a week for 12 weeks for a shot at something that commonly eludes local people: the possibility of getting a job, keeping it, and possibly advancing.
This is called the Ready to Work (RTW) Tourism Careers program. It is a national program facilitated by the Saskatchewan Tourism Education Council (STEC). It is about as blunt an instrument as you can imagine to fix the chronic issues of unemployment and poverty that have afflicted reserve life since it was conceived. Today Merilee MacLaggan, owner of Chantico Training, and Lyla Pochipinski will cover public speaking and preparing a resume. Orest speaks first. He explains the basics of safe and effective bodybuilding with weights. Harley presents a dream catcher and describes the economy of making them and selling them for $20 each.
To be here, participants have to arrange childcare for several children. Part of the application process is a disclosure of criminal records, something that could be disastrous when the actual job search begins. These participants are not ambitious adolescents giddy with expectations of a career. These are people whom, in the words of program facilitator Lynne Kennedy, “the school system failed.” The two things that factor against successful long-term employment, she says, are the lack of childcare, and substance abuse.
We are regularly told that wealth in the form of a booming economy is going to close the gap between the rich and the poor. It is a gospel that the economy, when it is generating record profits, will propel new technologies to save us from ecological ruin. The faster we gather up the material wealth that lies at, or beneath, our feet, it goes, the sooner we’ll have the kind of health care we all want. From the admittedly uncommon vantage point of a life-skills course at Island Falls, that seems pretty inadequate.
If time is what it takes to create a learning environment that actually works for people, then the spacious rural grounds at St. Peter’s College in Muenster seem to be ideal. The elegant brick buildings—part Benedictine abbey, part college—create a scholarly atmosphere. Brother Kurt Kreuger’s voice is just audible outside the large, open doorway into a class on psychology. He describes the indications of a schizophrenic disorder. The students are variously alert, busy with notes, distracted, or exhibiting mid-afternoon fatigue—nothing unusual there. The room is expansive and filled with light from south-facing windows—a departure from claustrophobic classrooms I recall from university. Brother Kurt is certainly unique. He is the only member of the abbey who teaches.
There is something, though, a little less tangible about St. Peter’s that sets it apart from most places of learning. It is possibly the influence of the abbey next door: there is a measure of quietness about the buildings that is rare to find in a school. The sensible thing to do when, as an outsider, the reason eludes you, is to ask. Abbot Peter Novecosky, who oversees St. Peter’s Abbey, is also the chancellor of the college.
“The tranquility of the place is certainly part of it,” he says. “Our life as Benedictines is very structured. For many students that regularity rubs off on them. It’s part of the balance.”
St. Peter’s is, by most standards, a small college. Roughly 150 students attend each year. It is one of a handful of religiously grounded colleges: Luther (University of Regina) and Briercrest (Caronport) are similar.
“Education comes naturally to Benedictines,” says Abbot Peter. “We want to offer a very good academic program and attentive staff. We also strive to keep the atmosphere co-operative. We ask ourselves how the classes fit with tradition and meet the needs of the students for growth.”
For Saskatchewan Registered Nursing Association (SRNA) president Karen Eisler, the need for a culture of learning—and therefore a culture where time is expended—in health facilities is extremely urgent. “Thirty years ago, when I started nursing,” she says, “we were doing half of what we’re doing now. The building of nursing knowledge, even having researchers in nursing, is not something that was there.
“Nurses right now are doing things from the ground up. They’re asking what they can do better and what they can do to get what they learn into policies that affect health outcomes for patients.”
In 2007, SRNA brought the Continuing Competency Program (CCP) to Saskatchewan health facilities. CCP is an annual exercise that requires nurses to assess their personal competency in 100 areas. It is, in a very practical sense, a measure of what has been learned and what can be made better at a very local level.
“When I fill out my 100 competencies in November,” says Eisler, “I have to keep checking back to see if I’ve been doing the things that have been learned. The CCP is explicit to the nurse’s work environment.”
Like anything in science,” says Professor Timothy Kelly, “the time scales are just inherently long.”
Given that Dr. Kelly is leading a research project into affordable and effective photovoltaic technology at the University of Saskatchewan, that may be a reality a lot of us would rather not face. The project he is leading received a half-million-dollar grant through the Canada Research Chair earlier this year to pursue new solar collectors made from materials that are much cheaper than existing technology.
“The global demand for energy is just insatiable,” Dr. Kelly said in a Globe & Mail interview on receiving the funding. “We can either go the oil-sands approach or take a more environmentally friendly sustainable way. I hope we can find a made-in-Canada solution.”
But can we hurry up and learn this, soon?
If we are actually going to learn our way out of problems like social injustice, strained public services such as health care, and ecological ruin, we’re all going to have to invest time learning. That, at least, is according to Dr. Glenn Sutter, the Curator of Human Ecology Research and Collections at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum. He would like us to consider ourselves participants in a fairly ambitious idea: the eco-museum.
In a nutshell, the eco-museum already exists in the form of the culture and ecology that lie just outside our doorsteps. “Eco-museums, when they work, are agreements that the community enters into and the residents use that agreement to protect their heritage, attract interest in it, and address issues the community might be facing.”
It could be a lake, an archaeological dig, a forest or even a building. For Sutter, the point is to start talking about what it has provided for the community in the past, what the community’s needs are now, and how the lake, dig, forest, or building can meet those needs without being diminished in the future.
“What I like about the eco-museum model is that it does empower the local residents. It’s their stories, their labour. It’s up to them to keep that agreement in place. Once people become mindful of the interconnectedness of things, then sustainability can naturally emerge.”
That kind of learning takes time.