Public education has a strong ally in newest lieutenant-governor

Sask Bulletin
October 16, 2019

Russ Mirasty

Recently appointed Lieutenant-Governor Russell Mirasty has been profoundly influenced by what he has learned in his various involvements with public education, primarily the Student First initiative.

If you were to consult the dictionary seeking clarification for what retirement means, you might want to share your findings with Russell Mirasty.

Albeit by choice, retirement in the classic sense is one of the few roles that somehow does not suit the province’s recently appointed lieutenant-governor.

After having spent 36 years with the RCMP and having ascended to becoming the first Indigenous person to command a division of the national police force in 2010, Mirasty has hardly been one to put his feet up and watch the world go by. He is one of those individuals who wants to play a part–or as he calls it, “always looking for a way you can contribute and learn.”

Being chosen as Saskatchewan’s 23rd lieutenant-governor was clearly not something he had envisioned, Mirasty chuckled in his trademark belly laugh. He then promptly added that, surprise aside, he is very much looking forward to the role he was thrust into just a few months earlier.

As one who is very much a sum of all the parts, one would be hard pressed to find an individual more suited for this role. Synonymous with his name, according to anyone who has met him, is the word respect.

An unabashed cheerleader for public education, Mirasty confirmed that the extensive provincewide exposure to the Student First initiative, in tandem with Patricia Prowse, has left an indelible impression. There was a certain bemusement that it had actually been six years ago.

By no means has time dulled Mirasty’s recollection of the exhaustive compilation of stories he and Prowse heard first-hand from teachers, students and community members in advance of submitting their discussion guide to the provincial government.

“It was an incredible experience that came down to listening to these stories in terms of what students need and how do we respond. We always talk about valuing education in our society, and that whole experience reaffirmed my belief in its importance.

“I truly believe we are starting to see changes happening, but the graduation rates for First Nations, Métis and Inuit students still aren’t where they should be and we need to continue to support the students and teachers in our classrooms. It requires our constant attention,” Mirasty observed.

He shared that halfway through the process, he and Prowse were musing about the hypothetical scenario of achieving the province’s espoused goals for increasing graduation rates. They realized that would mean coming together to make sure the supports would then be in place for the potential next step in these students’ respective futures.

One of the stories clearly etched in his memory was of a student sharing that he didn’t know who he was. “That was a powerful statement, and it makes you think about how we support a student like that in terms of them finding themselves and where they fit. Even if we are able to find a way to keep these students in school and enjoying learning, it’s a great step. That means having the parents engaged, and we saw some really good examples in places like Pinehouse where the Elders were playing such an important role,” he offered.

“When you are in a position of authority or who might have a chance to lend your voice, the whole Student First process certainly helped me understand why education is so important as the students are the recipients of those who we serve. I also came away with a deep appreciation for the way teachers deal with so many daily challenges in the classroom.”

Student First merely whetted Mirasty’s appetite for subsequent involvement in the public education sector. Initially he was aligned with the Saskatchewan League of Educational Administrators, Directors and Superintendents. He recalled enjoying the process of seeing first-hand the strategizing of how to improve and provide support for teachers. More recently, he became a board member of the Dr. Stirling McDowell Foundation for Research Into Teaching, and in his new role he will serve as the Honorary Patron of the Foundation.

“At the end of the day it’s about finding ways to allow teachers to be more innovative, and it was another example of seeing the dedication and passion that teachers have for their students,” Mirasty added.

While lauding the purposeful inclusion of First Nations and Métis culture in the curriculum, the lieutenant-governor wondered aloud why this had not occurred earlier.

“I think once a system is established in a certain way, it’s often more comfortable to maintain the status quo. It takes work to make changes like we are seeing, but from what I have seen, this shift to land-based education in particular is so much more motivating for First Nations students especially.”

Born and raised in La Ronge, and although he was a member of Lac La Ronge Indian Band, Mirasty attended school in the town itself (including four years in residential school). By his recollection, “I had tremendous support from my teachers. But we heard time and again during Student First how even the younger students talked about how important it was when they felt appreciated by their teachers. We heard stories from both ends of the spectrum and when you experience that in such an upfront and honest way, it’s very powerful.”

Acutely aware of the differences that exist for northern communities in the province, Mirasty passionately underscored the importance of any decisions that are made in areas such as education and health care and that they need to address the specific needs of the communities and not be some generic one-size-fits-all approach dictated from Regina.

“It’s so important we listen because these folks are tired of being told what to do. It’s such a different world. The economic base to support a growing population doesn’t exist,” he said while confirming he and wife Donna will maintain their home in La Ronge.

“I’m pleased to see some of these teacher education programs coming on board in La Ronge, Cumberland House and La Loche because it helps people be able to stay home if they want and to educate our young people,” Mirasty suggested. He added that as a youth, he too had not seen himself in a role for which he made his career path.

Confirming what others have said about Mirasty in public since his latest appointment, he made it clear during this interview that “I’ve always felt that relationships are foundational, and that goes hand in hand with reconciliation when you think about it.

“We need to get to a place where we can all look at each other as equals and that we can all contribute in some way to this province and this country. I believe we all have a role to play. I’ve always been optimistic and I think change is happening in a positive way. Whether I’m talking to the Premier [Scott Moe] or anyone else, I’m always going to focus on what is important to me. Education is certainly one of those areas that we need to pay attention to,” Mirasty summed up.