Innovation and inclusion: SIIT, Protein Industries Canada, Sask Polytech and more are advancing Indigenous education and reconciliation

Hannin Creek Indigenous Centre. Photo provided by Sask Polytech.

Institutions are coming together to uplift Indigenous communities, unlocking a new level of cultural and economic synergy in Saskatchewan. Innovative new educational programs are springing to life to build inclusion, share knowledge, teach skills and create long-term job opportunities in growing sectors.

SIIT, Protein Industries Canada and Whitecap Dakota First Nation

In May 2022, the Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technology (SIIT), Protein Industries Canada (PIC) and Whitecap Dakota First Nation (Whitecap) announced that the three organizations have partnered on a new micro-credential focused on both Indigenous youth and skill building in the growing food processing sector. The partnership, more than a year in the making, will see SIIT offering micro-credentials focused on developing skills and providing jobs in the food processing sector. These micro-credentials are the “just-in-time” educational programs, ensuring that Indigenous people are included in the plant-based protein industry. Each semester will offer 60 hours of on-site practicum, and networking opportunities with food processing business leaders, Indigenous Elders, Chiefs and Council, and other Indigenous youth.

The partners understood from the onset that SIIT needed to take a leadership role, to be true to themselves and Saskatchewan’s Indigenous peoples while aligning with Canada’s innovation agenda and the Truth and Reconciliation Committee’s (TRC) Calls to Action. With the goal of ensuring that reconciliation occurs at an economic and institutional level, SIIT’s role as an Indigenous institution moved the partnership’s agenda forward. “SIIT needed to take the reins for there to be progress,” says Tavia Laliberte, vice president of academics at SIIT. The post-secondary institution took the TRC Calls to Action as their marching orders to ensure reconciliation occurs at an economic and institutional level. Laliberte says that at SIIT, entrepreneurship programs have a social innovation lens, regardless of their field. Culture, customs, and language are foundational to the entrepreneurial work students and staff embark on. To see true inclusion, they need clear association with their Indigenous cultures.

Historically, the agriculture sector has not been inclusive to Indigenous people. Processing and manufacturing in the plant-based protein and ingredients sector because of this partnership is a way for Indigenous people to be included. “It’s one of the easiest and best ways to include indigenous people in the economy; it’s a really good opportunity to include Indigenous people,” says Laliberte. With likely disruptions in the agriculture sector because of COVID-19 supply chain issues and rising costs, processing and manufacturing makes for quick inclusion: a true win for everyone. The relationship between SIIT and Whitecap Dakota First Nation, with the co-investment from PIC, created the micro-credentials for Indigenous people in Western Canada. The micro-credential will continue to be developed in partnership with industry stakeholders across the country to focus on the skills that are needed by employees in the protein sector. “The partnership between our Nation, SIIT and Protein Industries Canada creates a new and exciting career path for our members and all Indigenous youth across the province. We know food security is vital to our future, and the learning opportunity for our people through this program offered at SIIT will ensure Indigenous voices and perspectives are included in the future of the food processing sector in Canada,” said Whitecap Dakota First Nation Chief Darcy Bear at the program announcement in May.

The partnership is a critical project for PIC. PIC is an industry-led, not-for-profit organization created to position Canada as a global source of high-quality plant protein and plant-based co-products. The federally funded organization was asked to focus on inclusive, economic growth that focuses on reconciliation. According to PIC CEO Bill Greuel, the partnership was ideal for both building inclusivity and skills and expanding education and long-term sustainable job opportunities for Indigenous youth. “We have needs that can be met by multiple parties,” says Greuel. “The organizations are supporting and driving each other and creating a labour pool of talented individuals. It’s very fulfilling.”

A total investment of $964,000 is being committed to the project, with Protein Industries Canada providing $514,000 and the partners committing the remainder.

Prince Albert Grand Council, Saskatchewan Polytechnic and Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation

On June 30, the Prince Albert Grand Council (PAGC), Saskatchewan Polytechnic (Sask Polytech) and the Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation (SWF) officially opened a new Indigenous Outdoor Learning Centre at the Hannin Creek Education and Applied Research Centre (HCEARC) near Candle Lake. Two weeks before the opening four tipis were raised for the land-based education encampment.

“The new centre will be called mitho askiy kiskēyihtamowin, which is Cree for good learning through experiences on the land,” said Dr. Larry Rosia, Sask Polytech’s president and CEO on June 30 at the opening. “This is an exciting collaboration that will focus on land-based learning and will provide cultural awareness training and education about the ways and history of Indigenous people. We are thrilled to have the Prince Albert Grand Council and Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation as partners on this important centre located in northern Saskatchewan.”

“The Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation is excited to be a part of the Indigenous Learning Centre at the Hannin Creek Education and Applied Research Centre,” says David Yorke, SWF President. “The SWF purchased a tipi several years ago, in conjunction with a local school division, and quickly recognized the fundamental nucleus it provided for education of First Nations traditions and historical knowledge that is a keystone of understanding and reconciliation. I am looking forward to seeing the tipis raised at Hannin Creek as part of the land based learning. This historical knowledge is a keystone of understanding and reconciliation.”

Scott Lipsit is the program head for natural resource technology programs, he shares, “While HCEARC has been operating as part of the natural resources programs at Sask Polytech for 50 years, the facility has been redeveloped through a partnership with the SWF over the past 10 years. This new initiative is important for both community building and inclusivity.” Thanks to the new partnership with the PAGC, the facility will now offer land-based learning to teach students to “learn from the land, live off the land and live in harmony with the land.” Land-based learning is the focus of the new encampment.

According to Sask Polytech, instructors will lead the land-based training at the Indigenous Outdoor Learning Centre. The PAGC has been a valuable partner and stakeholder throughout the centre’s development and for the programming it offers. “mitho askiy kiskēyihtamowin will offer applied research and education programs and land-based learning, as well as transferring Indigenous knowledge,” says Lipsit. “This is one more step in our efforts for inclusivity and understanding with Indigenous learners and communities.”

The initiative to establish an Indigenous Outdoor Learning Centre at HCEARC can be traced back to Jamie Hilts, former dean for the School of Mining, Energy & Manufacturing and School of Natural Resources & Built Environment. Hilts has since passed away. Lipsit says the opening of the new centre is part of Hilts’ vision being realized and added that Jamie had a firm philosophy when it came to outdoor education. Hilts said, “If we are going to teach about the land, we need to be here on the land.”