Janet Alcrow tried to focus on her excitement but the feeling of loss was pervasive.
As the last ever group of NORTEP students smiled for photos at their graduation ceremony in La Ronge Saturday night, Alcrow said it was hard to ignore the fact that completing her second NORTEP degree marked the end of an era for northern Saskatchewan.
"There was a lot of mixed emotions, knowing that we are celebrating the last grad of NORTEP/NORPAC," she said.
"At the same time you are excited that you've done your classes and you've done your studies, but it's also sad for the North because it has really helped. We are lacking resources and it is such a great loss."
Program established in 1976
The provincial government announced last month that Northlands College will be handling higher education in Saskatchewan's northern communities, taking over providing education in place of the Northern Teacher Education Program and the Northern Professional Access College. Both NORTEP and NORPAC will cease operating after July 31.
NORTEP was established in 1976 and developed by Keith Goulet, who was contracted by Northern School Boards, now the Northern Lights School Division. At the time, the teacher turnover rate in northern Saskatchewan was more than 80 per cent and the frequency of teacher departures was causing instability for students.
The new program was designed to make teacher training available to people who would stay in the North, without forcing them to leave for their studies.
"We were training people who spoke Cree, who spoke Dene, who understood the culture, who understood the ways of life of people and in that sense, a lot of people were excited about it," said Goulet, a former Saskatchewan MLA.
The air of excitement in the mid-1970s was not just about the teacher program, Goulet said.
Indigenous leadership creates air of excitement
At the time, he said northern Indigenous communities had only recently taken over their own governance.
The new Northern School Board and Île-à-la-Crosse School Board put education leadership in the hands of Indigenous communities, whose elected school leaders were previously in non-Indigenous communities.
He said it was also the first time in Canada's history that a tribal council was included in a school governance structure.
"It was the first time we had a real taste of governing ourselves, in the North… and it came to be a norm in the minds of a lot of people in the North, that we want to be involved in decision-making that affects our life," said Goulet.
The NORTEP program itself grew quickly. There were nine students in the first class of 1976, which was taught by Goulet. Within three years he said the number of applications grew to more than 100.
The program now offers a four-year Bachelor of Education program, and students can take a fifth year of studies to obtain a Bachelor of Arts.
Finding the confidence
Alcrow, who is from the community of Beauval, Sask., took the first four years of the program between 2008 and 2012.
She said she was working as a teacher's assistant when she decided to sign up for the program, having seen the success it brought to other community members, including one of the Northern mayors.
"All around in our community are people that have been to NORTEP but I never really saw myself being able to do that program," she said.
Alcrow didn't believe she would qualify for the program because she had not completed a high school diploma.
She said she lacked confidence, something she said was common among Aboriginal people living in northern Saskatchewan.
"There's always somebody else who's better, and that's how we see ourselves a lot of time in the North because of our history," she said.
"There's been a lot of oppression. Being Aboriginal, the racism and the stereotypes and growing up, you don't believe in yourself. So I had to fight a lot of those voices, I guess I could say. Negative voices of putting myself down, thinking I wouldn't be good enough."
Now she plans to fulfil her vision of teaching Northern students. She said she doesn't believe she would have felt comfortable signing up to study through another college.
The future at Northlands
On Saturday, Alcrow graduated from her fifth year of study to receive a Bachelor of Arts, making her one of more than 400 students to graduate from the program. NORTEP says 91 per cent of those graduates are teaching in the North.
Alcrow hopes Northlands College can replicate the family-like atmosphere she said helped her succeed at NORTEP.
Goulet believes the government will need to ensure the program offers face-to-face and practical training, such as that provided by NORTEP, to reap the same benefits for northern communities.
He is concerned these aspects of the course will be reduced over time for financial reasons, adding that he believes the closure of NORTEP/NORPAC is a financial decision.
There's also concern about whether students who qualify for northern status but not treaty status will have their tuition and books covered, as they do under the current arrangement. Students say Northlands lists tuition and books for the fall of 2017 at $6,900. About 65 NORTEP students could be affected by the transfer.
Communication between the province and NORTEP has been tense at times. Advanced Education Minister Bronwyn Eyre said earlier this month that NORTEP had "put up some barriers in terms of contact."
She said concerns raised about the transfer are premature, adding that it is still early in the transition.
Message of hope
Goulet, who spoke at the graduation ceremony in La Ronge, said part of the reason the Northlands transfer was so significant for Northern communities was because there was a feeling that NORTEP input on the transfer had not been taken seriously enough.
In his presentation to graduating students, he tried to motivate the crowd to continue to push for the kind of change and progress that led to the creation of NORTEP in the 1970s.
"I tried to let them know that things do change as well, I tried to get a message out there over the long run, those things that we learned from there, we can get back," he said.