Education in historic Saskatchewan Métis communities focused on skills related to hunting, trapping, and trade economies. The male children of buffalo hunters learned to ride horses at a very young age and were encouraged to be brave. Men initiated their sons and nephews into their areas of expertise, while girls were instructed in sewing, beadwork, quillwork, healing, and other skills essential to the mothers of large families. Parents who wanted their children to acquire literacy and increase their employment opportunities sent them away to be educated, usually to the Red River Settlement. Literate individuals often provided basic instruction to family and community members. Families with adequate financial resources, particularly those with Euro-Canadian or British fathers, developed the practice of sending at least one son to be educated in Canada, Britain, or occasionally the United States. Among the Saskatchewan-born sons to benefit from this practice were Cuthbert Grant and Alexander Kennedy Isbister, who made significant contributions to Métis history.
The first schools in Saskatchewan were the result of missionary activity. Henry Budd, an ordained minister of Cree descent, established an Anglican mission and school at Cumberland House in 1840. In 1847, a Catholic mission and school were established at Ile-à-la-Crosse. In 1860 three members of the Order of the Grey Nuns were sent from Montreal to assist in education and health care; Sara Riel (Sister Marguerite-Marie) worked at the mission school from 1871 until her death in 1883. Other early mission schools that served Métis communities were the Qu’Appelle mission, established in 1866 on Lake Katepwa, and Bishop Ovide Charlebois’s small Catholic school built at Cumberland House in 1890. In 1879, Nicholas Flood Davin’s “Report on Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-breeds” advocated the inclusion of the Métis in federal schools. Parents negotiated school fees with residential school administrators, and some schools took Métis children as day students. However, by 1910 the federal government excluded Métis and non-status Indian children from their schools, limiting their responsibility to the education of treaty or status Indians. The provincial government also refused to accept responsibility for their education. With few exceptions, Saskatchewan education in the early 20th century excluded the Métis.
In 1938, it was estimated that approximately 3,500 children of Native ancestry were unable to access basic schooling. The Reid report on education in northern Saskatchewan in 1939 and the Piercy report that followed in 1944 painted a grim picture of Métis education, particularly in the north. However, it was not until the election of the CCF in 1944 that the Saskatchewan government accepted responsibility for the education of Métis children. Schools were constructed in many communities, and within a decade virtually all Métis children had access to an elementary education. Unfortunately, decades of poverty and neglect were difficult to overcome: very few Métis graduated from high school, attended university, or participated in other post-secondary training.
By 1974, only two schools in northern Saskatchewan offered Grade 12. In 1976, after a painful struggle, Ile-à-la-Crosse gained control of its school system. The same year, the Northern School Board became an elected school board with nine members representing different regions; today it is known as the Northern Lights School Division. While northern Métis have seen an increase in educational autonomy, Métis living in central and southern Saskatchewan participate in the provincial system with slowly increasing success. The Gabriel Dumont Institute of Métis Studies and Applied Research, established in 1980, is the educational arm of the Métis Nation of Saskatchewan and the only Métis-controlled educational institution in Canada. (See also Dumont Technical Institute)
Sherry Farrell Racette