Cover Story

Leaders of Change: SIIT Innovates for the Future

Left to right: Tresa Reinhardt, Lisa Shingoose, Tavia Laliberte, Riel Bellegarde and CeCe Baptiste.

In 1976, First Nations leaders in Saskatchewan had a ground-breaking idea for educating Indigenous students. It was bold and innovative—with a clear vision to place learners and communities at the new institution’s centre. More than four decades later, that vision is still at the heart of it all. As Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technology (SIIT) looks ahead, it is just as bold and innovative—and ready to take on the challenges of providing 21st century education and opportunities to a diverse and growing student body that is ready to grab the future and run.

Looking Back and Forward

“First, we have to acknowledge the foresight of SIIT’s founding First Nations leaders,” says Riel Bellegarde, president and CEO at SIIT. “They envisioned an Indigenous-led institution that embodies our culture, traditions and customs to be governed with equal parts of humility and pride. Forty-five years later, that vision stands. Today, we’ve got 60,000 alumni across Canada—what a remarkable achievement to rise from such humble beginnings.”

Bellegarde leads the institution today with a dynamic team of senior leaders that are just as committed to the vision established decades ago with the same goal: Indigenous-led education that wraps around the learner, not the other way around. “Our school is designed entirely around the learners we serve,” says Bellegarde. “We get to know each student as individuals from the time they apply until they start their careers.” That philosophy—and SIIT’s inherent Indigenousness—make the school one-of-a-kind in the province and the country. In fact, SIIT is unconcerned with the current focus on Indigenizing education and educational institutions. “We don’t worry about Indigenizing, because we’re Indigenous,” says Bellegarde. It’s woven into the walls and corridors of our school and always has been. “As our province reopens, this transformed economy offers new pathways and opportunities for Saskatchewan’s Indigenous communities. There is no more important time in our province and nation to build a foundation of innovation and new technology to support Indigenous influencers and entrepreneurs. It is with this development in mind that we build the SIIT Centre for Innovation to enhance, challenge and collaborate with the existing economic ecosystem.”

Meeting the Horizon

SIIT Centre for Innovation. (L-R) Gabrielle Abraham, Sylvia Lachance, Ryan Jimmy (Associate Director – Strategic Initiatives), Dray Bear. Photo by Shane Luhning.

SIIT is also leaning into the future once again, creating programs that embrace the next generation of innovation and innovators—with Indigenousness at its core. The institution recognizes the impact technology is having on every industry and the coming demographic shift in Canada. There has never been a better time to train, grow and embrace the Indigenous workforce, and SIIT is creating major opportunities for students and businesses alike.

The SIIT Centre for Innovation is the institution’s latest initiative with a big goal: developing an ecosystem that is Indigenous led to serve Indigenous learners, communities, entrepreneurs and innovators. The idea is so big that it is the first of its kind anywhere. “While there are many incubators and accelerators out there, our Centre for Innovation is taking that idea one step further,” says Bellegarde. “We’re looking at innovation for both business and communities. Innovation is more than just technology. It’s about growing ideas that address challenges, whatever those challenges may be.”

The Future is Indigenous

Tavia Laliberte, SIIT’s Vice-President of Academics, sees the future like Bellegarde. “As Indigenous people, we are innovative and resilient. We foster and encourage ideas,” says Laliberte. “The Centre is designed to create a space to try new things, take calculated risks, and embrace the iterative process that is innovation.”

SIIT is creating the place to bring entrepreneurs and innovators to life, with the tools, technology and guidance they need for success—and the connections to Indigenous culture and community. “This is all about the space to create, ask questions, engage and grow ideas,” says Laliberte. “Plus, it’s about drivers that can be business-related—commercializing products or service—or socially-focused such as policy or community challenges.” In essence, SIIT’s success is measured in more than just dollars and cents.

The Centre has received $3 million from Sustainable Development Technology Canada, and SIIT is building partnerships with business, industry, government and institutions to bring it to life this summer with a first cohort planned for 2022. “The Centre is poised to have a major impact on industry and our economy. It’s a place we can grow Indigenous ideas, dreams, aspirations and talents to benefit business and community,” says Bellegarde.

Change Lives Here

Beyond the Centre for Innovation, SIIT leads in many ways. The institute’s Aircraft Maintenance Engineering program was born from the need for aircraft maintenance skills to support aviation related investments made by First Nations in the north to serve fly-in communities. The only program of its kind in the province, the program is looking to grow. “Our graduates are working across the country, and one of our recent students competed in an aviation competition in the Florida as part of an all-women team of aerospace specialists. One of our instructors is Indigenous, and he’s had a remarkable career that has taken him around the world,” says Laliberte. SIIT is working on growing the program to include avionics, as the aviation industry advances technology.

Barb Sankey, Dean – Post-Secondary Programs. Photo by Shane Luhning.

SIIT is also home to a new Indigenous Practical Nursing (IPN) program that has Indigenous and Western medicine embedded with its training. The program is truly a marriage between ‘land-based’ and ‘lab-based’ as students explore traditional Indigenous medicine and use virtual reality headsets to practice their skills. The IPN program has knowledge keepers integrated into the program from the start and includes Indigenous languages to better connect students to the cultural considerations of health care. “The thing that stands out so much for me with the IPN program is what it’s meant to the students,” says Laliberte. “Our first cohort was all women, and one of the students during her training looked around and saw that everyone in the room was Indigenous. In that moment, she felt both empowered and powerful. It was a profound moment, and she will carry that empowerment forward to her patients.”

The Big Picture

Whatever program learners have embarked on—from adult basic education to post-secondary degree pathways—SIIT is invested in the success of every student and career centre client. Each year, SIIT connects with over 7,000 Indigenous learners and clients across the province. The institute’s commitment to what they refer to as “wraparound supports” means that SIIT meets each learner where they are. The approach is based on the medicine wheel, and it considers students’ physical, mental, emotional and spiritual needs. “We fit our school to our students, not the other way around,” says Tresa Reinhardt, Vice-President, Employee and Student Services. “Our learners are unique, and we work to make sure they have what they need to succeed.”

SIIT students are often older than the traditional post-secondary student. Many have families, many have been away from education for a decade or more and many are from remote communities. The supports begin with small classes and engaged instructors that are trained to look for students that might need a little extra help. “We meet with instructors every two weeks to identify learners who may require some form of assistance,” says Reinhardt. That assistance comes in many forms, based on what the student may need. ‘Lunch and Learns’ and food boxes are there to ensure food security is addressed. Counsellors are on hand for mental wellness, and learning specialists provide academic support. There is also help for job interview preparation, transportation, childcare, financial literacy, and even help for spouses looking for employment. Elders also play a major role in the SIIT landscape, connected to each campus. “The cultural nature of our support has been tremendously well-received by students,” says Reinhardt. “Elder guidance and advice are integrated into our model.” The wraparound supports model launched in 2017, and it has been so successful that other Canadian institutions are asking how they can emulate what SIIT has innovated. “We have seen student retention rates rise dramatically since we started the supports,” says Reinhardt. “We have been asked to speak nationally about our program and we’re extremely proud of what we have created for our learners.”

Growing Together

Also integral to SIIT’s decades of success are the partnerships the school has cultivated. SIIT has built relationships with the University of Saskatchewan, Gabriel Dumont Institute and the Mastercard Foundation to support the Centre for Innovation and develop new initiatives that support students and programs. “Dynamic programming is key to our institution,” says CeCe Baptiste, Vice-President of Finance and IT. “Our partnership with USask, GDI and MasterCard is designed to support and enhance Indigenous entrepreneurship through the Centre.”

Internally, SIIT has also strategized on how it can use technology to better serve students. “We have made investments into technology that can better enable learning,” says Baptiste. However, technology is a place where business and industry can make a difference in the province. “Infrastructure on First Nations has fallen behind, especially where technology is concerned,” says Baptiste. “Investment from public and private partners can help deliver the best possible education and supports for everyone’s benefit. There is real, practical impact to be made on the economy.”

Set Up for Success

SIIT JobConnections. (L-R) Jason Chickosis, Lorraine Ferguson. Photo by Shane Luhning.

When an SIIT student is ready to start their career path, they are not alone in that journey. Like every step before, SIIT has designed a way to pave a successful road into a career. The school’s JobConnections program is dynamic, flexible and mobile—meeting students where they are, literally. “We bring employment services right to Saskatchewan’s First Nations in our tech-enabled RVs and in our nine Career Centres,” says Lisa Shingoose, Vice- President of Employment and Career services. “Our portable learning environment links SIIT to the students and communities we’re committed to serving.” JobConnections offers a remarkable array of services to both students and employers. Often, it’s an SIIT RV that gets a student thinking about the possibilities. “We’re often the first connection point to post-secondary education. We help potential students think about their goals and dreams and assess what they need to do to get where they want to go,” says Shingoose.

Once a student has carved their path at SIIT, JobConnections and Career Centres are there to help them take their final step into employment. SIIT works with employers to match students to jobs, and vice versa. “Our job coaches get to know our students and interested employers and work to bring them together,” says Shingoose. “It’s another part of our wraparound supports.” For employers looking for recruits, getting involved with SIIT is easy. “The partnership opportunities are limitless. Whether you’re looking to offer work experience to students or want to fill permanent positions, SIIT students are flexible and adaptable with the skills you need,” says Shingoose.

Be the Change

More than four decades ago, SIIT’s founders saw a bright future for Saskatchewan’s Indigenous students and communities. That remarkable vision has never faded—it’s only grown stronger as the years have passed. Today, SIIT is on the cusp of even more change as it continues to proudly demonstrate its impact on the fabric of the province and the country. While innovation may now have a centre to call its own at SIIT, it’s always been an integral part of this proud institution that changes the lives of its students and the First Nations it serves. “We value collaboration, and our door is open to engage with Saskatchewan business and industry,” says Bellegarde. If there was a time to become part of that change, it’s now.