The Symbol of the Northern Loon

By Dr. Herman Michell – President CEO

LoonThe haunting call of the northern Loon is a sound that touches every aspect of a person’s being. It ripples through your heart and mind, triggering memories, creating stillness and calm balanced with momentary flashes, in rhythm with the sound of rain hitting water. Loons glide majestically on the surface of lakes, rivers, and streams. In many ways, they are like university students, who spend long periods of time metaphorically diving for knowledge. Even in the midst of dark clouds and thunder they hold up their heads high as to embrace ambivalence and change. The loon logo at NORTEP-NORPAC represents the strengths and resilience of students and graduates who are making valuable contributions in the province of Saskatchewan. It is not easy getting a university education in the north. Accessible and innovative delivery models that link with the northern context are the key to success in response to the diverse needs of communities in the region.

Since it began operations in the mid 1970’s, the organization has been at the forefront of ensuring all students come out with a good solid northern background in addition to regular university degree requirements. We offer northern-based content that cannot be duplicated in southern institutions including complex knowledge related to the social, historical, economic, political, cultural, and contemporary realities of people that live in this region. Reconciliation is about honoring Cree, Dene, and Métis ways of knowing at levels of the academic apparatus. The Ministry of Education requires that teachers integrate Aboriginal content in all subject areas. The organization is located in a perfect northern setting where this is possible. Instructors challenge the intellectual capacity of students. Out on the land, existential moments are met with ancient voices from slabs of grey rock and whispers of boreal forest trees that line sandy beaches. We teach students to think critically and to listen carefully to the chatter in various disciplinary discourses. Rain intensifies. Mist rises across the lake, blurring color, hue, and tone of the shoreline. Knowledge synergies are possible when diversity is respected. Silence is interrupted with a splash and sound of fish dancing in celebration within the fullness of summer.

The loon is in many ways a symbol of our northern spirit. Many students enter the program with the intent of making a difference in their own lives and within their communities. NORTEP-NORPAC allows them to be closer to home. They are able to do their assignments by connecting with what is happening at the local level. More importantly, they do not have to leave the north to complete a university degree. The striking colors that adorn the loon are a symbol of our connection to land, water and sky. The spatter of circles on its body represents the diversity of communities entrenched and deeply rooted in the north. Cree and Den Elders say our ‘ways of knowing’ require participation with the land in all of its facets. The breath of creation rides within the song of the Loon reverberating in different directions with echoes that travel far and near. The degrees earned at NORTEP-NORPAC are considered the Canadian standard. It is the universities that approve our instructors to ensure they are the best qualified to teach at the post-secondary level and in particular courses. Our core faculty and visiting professors have been educated in different universities. Students learn transferable skills that can be used across the continent and abroad. Evening campfires emit the smell of wood smoke meeting air and fog. Graduates are reassured they will find jobs once they leave the organization. Most of them stay, work, and teach in the north where they are needed. They are considered role models for young people. NORTEP-NORPAC alumni in many ways represent the ancient Migwaps silhouetted against the setting sun. Each one ‘gifted’ with wisdom and knowledge that must be passed on to future generations.

The loon lives in the stories and psyche of the Cree, Dene, and Métis people. The loon teaches us the importance of being alert. It teaches us to be observant of the patterns in the world around us. The last impact study on the organization was completed in 2006. A special thanks to Dr. Michael Tymchak, a professor from the University of Regina, and former Director of NORTEP. Our graduates are not only leaders they are ‘movers and shakers’ who are making transformative contributions in northern Saskatchewan schools and communities. They know their history and they know what is needed to make change. Decolonization requires ‘we interrogate’ our shared history and re-embrace our traditional teachings and stories that have so much to offer academia and indeed our entire country. In one of our Cree stories, Wisahkicahk (mythological trickster/transformer) fills his bag pack with moss. He tells the different birds he meets the bag is full of his songs. A lodge is built. He invites the birds to a dance. He gives instructions that everyone shut their eyes while they dance. Special songs are sung to the ‘meaty ones’ and one by one he breaks their necks. After 100 years of education policy bent on assimilation, it is the metaphoric loon who begins to notice the quietness and opens its eyes to the trickery. The loon sounds the alarm. Wisahkicahk kicks the loon in the legs. That is why the loon has red eyes and its legs are positioned in the back of the body making it hard to walk on land. Healing from the impact of colonization and Residential schools will take time. NORTEP-NORPAC staff and faculty members play a pivotal role in the lives of students who face barriers as a result of this history. We are committed to providing multiple supports. We are advocates for quality and accessible post-secondary education in the north. Today, the Loon is responsible for calling the rain into being. Different songs indicate what the weather will be like the next day. Our vision of education is one that honors, respects, and ‘leads to balance’ in alignment with the aspirations of the province, universities, colleges, northern Aboriginal communities, schools, and employers.

Spring in northern Saskatchewan is a time of re-birth. NORTEP-NORPAC continues to evolve and change in response to the changing needs of communities and capacity building demands of industry. The loon and its partner can be seen building a nest together. They take turns keeping the eggs warm and feeding their young. Education in the north is a shared responsibility. Special thanks to Advanced Education, Immigration, and Employment for funding support, and the Board of Governors, who bring strong northern perspectives to the oversight and strategic direction of the organization. The loon teaches us the importance of family and creating ‘a home away from home’ environment for all students. We encourage them to dive deeply for the knowledge they need for survival as well as what will benefit their communities. Loon teaches us to turn our head in a circle to see the world from multiple perspectives. Knowledge synergies enrich self-determination efforts in the minds and hearts of students. The loon requires a long stretch as it begins to get ready for flight, rising above water, walking first, then running, flexing wings, picking up momentum and flying upwards to unknown horizons. And so it is for our graduates…please come back and visit us from time to time….share with us what you have done with your degree.