January 10, 2017 7:49 pm
Updated: January 11, 2017 10:34 am

Northern Saskatchewan students enter second semester of Dene teacher program

WATCH: Officials in La Loche made it clear that support is still needed in their community almost a year after a tragic mass shooting. However, that's not to say no improvements have been made. One program in particular could see positive change for years to come. Joel Senick reports.

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As Heather Piché sat down to begin the seventh class of her bachelor’s degree this week, she knew her workload wouldn’t be the same as a typical four-year university student.

“It’s a three month course crammed into three weeks,” Piché explained during a brief break from her morning lesson.

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READ MORE: Options being assessed for NORTEP transition plan in northern Saskatchewan

However, it’s not Piché’s course load that’s unique, but rather where she’s undertaking it. The second-semester student is pursuing a university degree in her home community of Clearwater River Dene Nation, just north of La Loche, Sask.

“I wanted to go back to school, but financially and having to move away from home was kind of difficult,” Piché said.

“As a Dene person this is a good opportunity for me and I want to pass that knowledge onto the children.”

Piché and 29 others are enrolled in the Dene Teacher Education Program (DTEP), which aims to produce local teachers who can lead lessons taught in the Dene language. The program began last July and is ran through a provincial partnership that includes the University of Regina, First Nations University of Canada, Clearwater River Dene Nation and the Northern Lights School Division.

“It’s a really unique program that you won’t find anywhere else in North America [and] very few actually exist in the world,” Mark Klein, the principal of the Clearwater River Dene Nation School, said about where the students take their courses.

“This is the first ever university program to happen in La Loche or Clearwater [River Dene Nation].”

READ MORE: Saskatchewan says it is helping community traumatized by school shooting in La Loche, Sask.

The program was announced in the wake of a tragic mass shooting committed by a 17-year-old boy in La Loche last January that claimed four lives. DTEP is one of many initiatives supported by the provincial government in response to the shooting.

The four-year program will cost $480,000 and the province will fund half of it. Government officials indicate the goal is to create an “increased sense of optimism and community for local students.”

“Language is culture and culture is your identity,” Klein said.

“It gives the kids when they learn the language the opportunity to learn about what it means to be Dene.”

FULL COVERAGE: La Loche school shooting

Klein noted that many people speak Dene in the La Loche area, however fluency has been lost in other surrounding communities.

“They have no teachers to teach the language, so they’re pretty desperate,” Klein said.

“These teachers are going to be in high demand.”

At this point DTEP will only include the initial intake of 30 students, however Klein said he hopes the program spawns more educational opportunities for those living in isolated communities.

“Thirty new teachers in four years would be and will be amazing, but why not start a social work program as well,” Klein said.

“Let’s have some social workers who are trained in their own community, to work in their own community.”

© 2017 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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