Give me land, lots of land

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A sad fact of living in a large country such as Canada is it’s cheaper, and takes less time, to fly to other countries than across this one. As a result, many Canadians are more familiar with Punta Cana beaches than the shores of the Canadian Atlantic.

My opportunity to visit Saskatchewan was fortuitous; I was invited to the SK TEAL/ TESL SASK Conference as a speaker, and am grateful to have had the opportunity to visit the province for the first time.
Flying in and out of Regina, I chose the view rather than the in-flight entertainment, provided for me by Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism.  The myriad of lakes across the landscape create a paisley fabric, and each square has been branded by a tractor/combine: some patterned, some striped, some plain, some with no discernible pattern, but captivating as a foil for the careful checkerboard surrounding it. I won’t tell you anything new when I say the prairies are flat, so flat. Coming from YYZ, the open stretches of graphic farmed land are in sharp contrast to the developed suburbs I live in. How we tame the land to make it work for us, not against us, defines us regionally, I think. However, the 4-patch quilt that is Saskatchewan evoked what’s bred in the bone; a farmer’s daughter feels a connection to the land wherever she is.

The people I met were friendly, open, generous, and happy. My cab driver humoured me and took me on a scenic tour of the city, no extra charge. A volunteer, Anna Edoo, ferried me from the conference and back, insisting on taking me to Shoppers Drug Mart so that I could purchase some necessities to feel comfortable in my hotel. And she kept me company both days, ensuring I wouldn’t sit alone. My time with the TESL Saskers/SK TEALers ended with a lovely dinner at Rock Creek Grill. The conference organizers made me feel part of their conference – I did not have to try to fit in, because I found my place. The other presenters, the keynotes, touched on topics that may not be the issues which face Ontario language teachers, but gave me a history lesson of English language teaching in Saskatchewan within the framework of national language policies.

Ontario’s heritage language program, now called the International Languages Elementary Program, still receives funds for families to educate children in their mother tongues. Ontario is home to 6 out of 36 communities which have “an existing Resettlement Assistance Program (RAP) Service Provider Organization (or Quebec equivalent) in place to provide immediate and essential specialized services for refugees.” (Government of Canada, Map of destination communities and service provider organizations).
Saskatoon and Regina are also two of these 36 chosen communities, yet this year, the government of Saskatchewan pulled funding for their heritage language program, a total of $225 000. This on the heels of 200 Government Assisted Refugees from Syria arriving in the school district of Regina where I visited, in a city of just over 100 000.

Teachers are concerned with supporting these new families without the necessary support workers in place. They are ready for the task, but the task is great. Dr. Jaswant Guzder, who spoke about the importance of creating cultural safety, acknowledged the stress of hearing stories of trauma, but encouraged educators to play the role of a mother …”You are not trauma workers, and you shouldn’t be. Look at your role as that of a mother: when they come to you with your stories, you do what a mother does and you must hold that story for them, close to your heart.”

What could Ontario learn from Saskatchewan? The Ministry of Education, the Honourable Liz Sandals, ought to take a few pages from the policies and hearts of Saskatchewanian educators and start putting solid policies in place which recognize the history, the rights, the challenges First Nations Métis Indigenous peoples face in Ontario. The conference began by acknowledging that the site of our professional development sat on Treaty 4 land. Each classroom contained posters and art featuring Cree and FNMI symbols. Sessions included how to deal with the influx of refugees as well as how to incorporate FNMI into 21st century classroom practices. Every conversation I had touched on the importance of acknowledging and supporting indigenous students in schools.  The Attawapiskat community reels from its tragedies, but their needs were in our periphery for a just few days, then forgotten again.

I left Regina with a bigger heart and an open mind. That open prairie sky, so big, can make you feel small, insignificant. But small people can accomplish great things.

References: Government of Canada, Map of destination communities and service provider organizations. Retrieved from http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/refugees/welcome/map.asp