Smith follows her lifeliong dream of being and teacher - and so much more as well

April 5, 2019
By Andrea Hill Photo by Liam Richards

Smith follow her lifeliong dream of being and teacher - and so much more as well

Rosalena Smith has been a tireless educator in Pinehouse and is a passionate advocate for her students.

PINEHOUSE–Rosalena Smith knew she wanted to be a teacher by the time she was in her teens.

But when she graduated from high school, she didn’t know if she could do it.

The Métis woman had spent her whole life in the northern village of Pinehouse–population 1,000–and heading south to a bigger city to further her education was a daunting prospect.

“I just didn’t have the courage to pack up and to move,” recalls Smith, now 51 years old.

Instead of going immediately to teacher’s college, Smith spent seven years as a student support worker in her community, working one-on-one with students, before driving 350 kilometres south to Prince Albert to do her teaching degree through the Saskatchewan Urban Native Teacher Education Program (SUNTEP).

“Growing up, we didn’t go to the city; I had no idea. I drove on one road where it was the least amount of traffic to go to school and then I’d go home the same way and that’s what I did for a long time,” Smith said.

She has come a long way from that scared young woman who struggled to drive on Prince Albert’s busy streets. She’s earned two masters degrees–one in education and one in northern government development–and has spent time travelling northern Saskatchewan as a community school consultant for the province’s northern school board. These days, she’s the principal of Minahik Waskahigan Elementary School in Pinehouse.

She’s also the northernmost representative on the 10-member Saskatchewan Health Authority Board, which was formed in 2017 ahead of the amalgamation of the province’s 12 health regions in December of that year.

Smith said her experience as a northerner, a Métis woman and an educator makes her a strong addition to the Board. She sees herself as a champion for the north and for improved and increased access to mental health services across the province.

“Having been born in Pinehouse and having lived here my entire life, I’m working with children, I get to see firsthand some of the issues that our families and the communities and the Indigenous people are dealing with,” she said.

“I get to attend the Board meetings and I get to have a voice and to say, ‘This is the reality; this is the reality of what we experience as Indigenous, as First Nations, as Métis people.’”

In her 28 years as an educator, Smith has watched as the number of northern youth struggling with mental health issues has risen. There are more young people now who have conditions such as Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), oppositional defiant disorder, depression and addiction to technological devices such as cellphones and computers.

Smith believes educators can play a bigger role when it comes to the mental health of youth and wants to see tighter partnerships formed between health and education. She thinks teachers and support staff–particularly in remote, rural and northern communities where there are fewer resources–should be trained in how to recognize and support young people with mental health conditions.

“There’s no expertise on how to deal with students coming in that do have those mental health issues. So we really do need the training and the development of capacity,” she said.

Smith is so passionate about access to mental health care because of her own family’s experiences. She has a daughter who suffers from anxiety and depression.

“It was such a horrible challenge for all of us to go through that,” she says. “It’s been a difficult process for us, so I advocate very strongly for mental health services and support for people who struggle with it.”

This article, entitled  SHA’s Northernmost Board Member an Advocate for Mental Health Care, originally appeared in The StarPhoenix (Saskatoon) and the Leader-Post (Regina) and has been reprinted with their permission.