North Stars of the Prairie Provinces: Canada’s Tribal Colleges, Part 3

Feb 21st, 2016 | By | Category: Online features, Web Exclusive
By Leif Gregersen

(Editor’s Note: This is the third installment of a four-part, web-exclusive series on First Nations colleges and universities in Canada.)

Part 1: Indigenous Learning in the Pacific Province
Part 2: Knowledge Keepers of the Northern Rockies
Part 3: North Stars of the Prairie Provinces

CANADIAN TRIBAL COLLEGESSaskatchewan and Manitoba are home to a handful of tribally owned and controlled First Nations colleges. These institutions are empowering the Native people they serve to take on greater roles in their own and outside communities. The Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technology and Yellowquill College in Manitoba are two of these tribal colleges—not only educating Indigenous peoples with modern skills training and instruction methods, but also acting as a great force to maintain and pass on Native culture and language.

The Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technology (SIIT) has been serving the needs of First Nations’ students in the province for nearly 40 years. The institute’s mission is to create a critical bridge between the needs of Saskatchewan Indigenous communities and labor market requirements in an environment that promotes traditional Indigenous ways and fosters student success.

SIIT was first established in 1976 as Saskatchewan Indian Community College, which originally delivered adult programming but soon branched out to offer accounting and community health programs that were delivered throughout the province. In 1982, the college saw an increase in funding, leading to the development of satellite colleges and a change in programming priorities to establish ongoing, fully certified, occupational courses and programs.


Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technology helps meet the needs of central Canada’s labor market requirements.

Today, SIIT is governed by the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, which is an elected body that represents 74 member nations split linguistically into Cree, Dakota, Dene, Nakota, and Saulteaux. It is one of the initial First Nations-controlled, post-secondary institutions in Canada. Roughly 93% of SIIT students are First Nations or Aboriginal. They are able to fund their education through a variety of scholarships and grants—SIIT has some 25 sponsors that offer 90 scholarships to First Nations students. Funding also often comes from the students’ respective First Nations and, as many students are older, from employment insurance programs. Two-thirds of SIIT students are over the age of 25 and one in three have dependents. Many have been out of the education system for some time and so the various adult basic education programs offered at SIIT provide a critical link as students pursue their educational and career goals.

Nearly half the approximately 2,400 students who registered at SIIT during the last academic year took their programs at one of the school’s three main campuses, located in Saskatchewan’s three largest cities: Saskatoon, where the main campus and offices are located, Regina, and Prince Albert. All three campuses have a student leadership council that gives students a voice in their own education. The councils are involved in many of the cultural events that make life at SIIT a uniquely First Nations experience. Their purpose is to help guide decision-making by and for students at SIIT, and to encourage them to get involved and contribute to their own education. Elders employed by the school provide moral, cultural, and spiritual guidance and counsel to students in times of need. They also help in the maintenance of students’ cultural identity, based on traditional Aboriginal principles.


Like Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute in Albuquerque or United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, SIIT is an urban-based tribal college, serving the cities of Saskatoon, Regina, and Prince Albert.

At SIIT, programs are delivered at the community level through a variety of channels. SIIT operates eight career centers located throughout the province, which provide short-term work preparation and training courses to more than 4,500 clients annually. The institute offers many diverse and practical programs—everything from construction trades preparation to health care and community studies. The institute is also home to an aircraft maintenance engineer program, which is a Transport Canada–approved program, meaning graduates are certified to work as aircraft maintenance engineers anywhere in Canada, and can seek more employment opportunities abroad. Other popular programs include business and technology, and agreements are in place with both the Edwards School of Business at the University of Saskatchewan and the First Nations University of Canada, which allow SIIT graduates to enter a business degree program at a third-year level.

The president of SIIT, Riel Bellagarde, declares “the greatest threat to continued economic growth in Saskatchewan and Canada as a whole is the lack of access to skilled labor,” adding that SIIT “will strive to be the ‘institute of choice’ for many First Nations students, as we have a great responsibility to foster the connection between learning and successful entry into the workforce.”


SIIT boasts a Transport Canada-approved aircraft maintenance engineer program, giving graduates far-reaching career opportunities.

In the province just east of Saskatchewan, the role of cultural and educational support is taken up by Yellowquill College. Founded in 1984 with a dream of “Indian control of Indian education,” Yellowquill College is located in Winnipeg, Manitoba, which has the dubious distinction of being the coldest major city in Canada. Temperatures in recorded history have reached as low as 54 degrees below zero, but such cold winter days have done little to slow student success at Yellowquill.

The college was mandated and established by the Dakota Ojibway tribal council to embrace all learners and to provide holistic education and training. It is an accredited First Nations institute of excellence which strives to prepare students to meet the needs of the 21st century while providing an appropriate environment that preserves and enhances culture and tradition. In its 31-year history, Yellowquill has grown from its original home at a residential school on the Long Plain First Nations reserve with just 16 students, to a thriving metropolitan college with over 1,000 students.


Although Yellowquill College’s roots lie on the reserve, it now serves the needs of a large cross-section of First Nations students, rural and urban alike.

Doreen Beauchamp, the college’s head director, feels that Yellowquill is a “special place where students have an opportunity to pursue culturally relevant education in an environment of respect and understanding of their individual needs.” Indeed, the college was founded on seven key values: wisdom, love, respect, courage, honesty, humility, and truth. Yellowquill is governed by a board of directors that consists of eight chiefs of the member bands that founded the college. The school is Aboriginally chartered and operates through a combination of different types of funding. Canada’s Department of Indian and Northern Affairs provides 27% of the total operating budget, while the Province of Manitoba provides 16%. The remaining 57% is raised through tuition.

The college provides many core programs and an array of educational workshops for both business and government organizations to further educate their staff on everything from professional development to community health planning and basic counseling skills. There are a number of Aboriginal business programs, including accounting, business management, and First Nations management and administration. Yellowquill also provides programs in chronic disease prevention, diabetes prevention, community health worker training, and a mature student high school diploma program, among many others. The college recently announced a new 12-week Equine and Health Care Certificate to train students to care for and groom horses.

Yellowquill continually reaches out to surrounding areas, spearheading community literacy and upgrading programs that have provided much-needed basic skills to students in several First Nations communities. Professional development and work-related training is provided to enrich the skills of many First Nations and Aboriginal employees. There are currently four off-campus mature student high school diploma programs which operate in partnership with the First Nations reserves where they are located. “The mature student high school program is among the most popular of our programs,” says Lyle Plett, the school’s First Nations Management and Administration instructor. “Students see the value of it, but many of them end up enrolling in a university transfer program.”


Faculty at Yellowquill teach students of all ages and the college’s mature student high school diploma program is one of the most popular.

The age and Aboriginal status of students at Yellowquill varies. “We have students as young as 19 and up to their 40s,” Plett says. “Many of our students are Status Aboriginal peoples, but some of those are students who have never lived on a reserve. We are seeing more and more that due to housing and other issues on reservations that bands are moving into the cities.”

Cultural events at Yellowquill are built into the daily life and environment of the school. “Culture is everywhere,” Plett states. “There are always powwows going on and the school is affiliated with eight member bands. We even have an in-house elder. One of the biggest events is a massive annual powwow at the MTS Centre, home of the Winnipeg Jets hockey team. This is a very popular activity for our students.”

At Yellowquill College, students can expect an enriching cultural experience and a top-notch, Aboriginal-based education. Whether they are there for a two-year degree or for one of the university transfer programs provided through the college’s affiliation with the University of Winnipeg, Yellowquill serves the needs of Manitoba’s First Nations’ students by providing a culturally responsive education.

It has been a long, hard road for Canadian tribal colleges to gain accreditation and reputation, but there are many determined individuals working together towards the common goal of Native control of Native education—and huge strides have been made. Both Yellowquill and SIIT have established firm roots in their respective communities, shining as beacons of hope for the Native people they serve and for the multitudes of graduates that have passed through their doors over the years.

Leif Gregersen is an author and public speaker who grew up north of Edmonton in the small city of St. Albert. He has a strong connection to the North and runs a blog at:

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