O’Soup says initiative will have profound long-term impact for youth

January 16, 2019

Corey O’Soup

Saskatchewan’s Advocate for Children and Youth, Corey O’Soup, was one of the first involved in Following Their Voices, and he is encouraged by the progress that has been made. Bulletin file photo

In his current role as Saskatchewan’s Advocate for Children and Youth, Corey O’Soup is vigilant when it comes to ensuring children have a voice in their education.

So it was a natural fit given that earlier in his career, while at the Ministry of Education, O’Soup would be in on the ground floor in 2013 when there was a commitment to follow some of the learnings that had been gleaned from the New Zealand model known as Te Kotahitanga. This model has been universally acclaimed for the success it has achieved in terms of integrating Mori culture into the New Zealand curriculum.

“Looking back, I would say the key was that right from the beginning we talked to our Elders,” said O’Soup, who is an Indigenous person himself. “The thing that made this uniquely Saskatchewan was that among our First Nations peoples there are multiple languages, so that wasn’t an easy fit.

“But I would say without the support and guidance of the Elders, this program would never have gotten off the ground. We had to push through on a number of levels, from the Ministry [of Education] to the communities. We worked with provincial schools and First Nations schools in our efforts to Indigenize the education program.”

O’Soup vividly recalls that during the first year of piloting there were a lot of bumps in the road, “but we could see that once teachers had the tools, they were on board. They could see that this could make a difference, so that made you optimistic.”

O’Soup suggested there was a consensus that whatever challenges might arise, the success of the program was paramount to all involved once this door was opened, “we knew we couldn’t fail.

“With this process, unless you have strong conviction that you can build this, it won’t work. This is not something you can do with a phone call. It was important to invite students into the process; they could be leaders in their classrooms.

“It was a very fundamental shift in teaching differently, so we had to give teachers permission to try this and make sure that they knew we were welcoming their expertise. The most important piece in all of this is relationships. In this province we’ve talked so long about this, but this program made it clear that there was a strong link to our schools,” O’Soup said.

If you think that sounds pretty straightforward, O’Soup said that ostensibly it meant an integral part was for teachers to unlearn and relearn their practice.

According to O’Soup, he can still see the benefits of the Following Their Voices initiative in his current role as advocate. “It can really be a difference maker when it comes to engagement and attendance. Hopefully it will have the same effect in graduation rates.”

By his own admission, O’Soup said it takes time to get this right, and it is naive to expect overnight success on a grand scale.

“There is no question in my mind that the program has shown real promise, and it is having an impact. But if we want to move the dial, we can’t stop now. It needs to continue,” O’Soup said.

Although the number of schools has now swelled to 39, O’Soup said ideally he would like to see it expanded to 100 or even 1,590 schools provincewide.

While there are no ironclad guarantees for funding in the future, O’Soup reckons that even in the worst-case scenario where funding is cut, the initiative has already had the desired effect.

“No matter what happens, we have a legacy of teachers who have bought in, and we have communities who have bought in with everyone coming together. I think it was important that we did it right from the start in terms of doing very thorough research and having the
kind of authentic involvement we had.”

O’Soup recalls the excitement that accompanied the program and that only increased when people could see the change beginning to unfold.

“There’s always going to be little tweaks where we can do better. But it’s amazing to see, and we’re in a much better spot than just two years ago, for example,” he summed up.