Breaking barriers

Providing education and access to services for remote communities is a daunting task. Not all communities have the same opportunities, but the University of Saskatchewan has faculty and alumni who work on a daily basis to reduce the inequity between the north and the south.


This covers everything from northern health care, access to veterinary services, access to law education and limited access to the provincial energy grid.

The ideal response from students and communities from the north that engage with the university is “feeling empowered and feeling that the university has been responsive in meeting them where they're at,” said Jacqueline Ottmann (MEd’02, PhD’05), vice-provost of Indigenous engagement at the U of S.

Work like this takes relationship building, innovation and big ideas. These are just a few of the alumni and faculty who have the passion and drive to take it on.

Ending energy dependence


School of Environment and Sustainability professor and Fulbright Scholar Greg Poelzer envisions a future where communities in northern Saskatchewan have access to sustainable energy to meet their need.

“What few people in Saskatchewan realize or even know is that Saskatchewan has two power grids—a northern grid and a southern grid that are not connected to one another,” said Poelzer. “Moreover the northern grid is built on the Precambrian shield and is not grounded, leading to frequents power outages.”

These frequent power outages are often caused by lightning or winter storms, which can last upwards of 24 hours. In a sustainable future, there would be local generation of energy sources and communities would be on micro-grids that protect them when the northern grid is down.

The vision Poelzer has is not just a pipe dream. He can easily recite a long list of reasons why projects like solar power and biomass—which turns wood waste into power and energy – are not only feasible, but desirable, for all sectors of society. Introducing these methods would help the province move towards its goal of increasing renewable energy use by 50 per cent by 2030; and the federal government would benefit from moving closer to its Paris Climate Agreement goals.

But the needs of northerners are first and foremost in Poelzer’s rationale for renewables, which he sees as a potential way to decrease the disparity in wealth between the provincial north and the rest of Canada.

“You're sitting with this enormous opportunity for economic development for employment, wealth generation in northern communities,” he said.

Luckily, no one needs to reinvent the wheel in finding those energy solutions. Instead, they can look to other jurisdictions and adapt them to the unique needs of Saskatchewan’s North.

The Netherlands and northern Sweden are 15 to 20 years ahead of Canada in renewable energy deployment, Poelzer said, and he is particularly interested in using Alaska as a guide for northern Saskatchewan because they have similar climates and remote communities.

“Everyone thinks of two things about Alaska: Sarah Palin and oil. [They] don't realize that [Alaska is] actually a world leader in micro-grid deployment and renewable energy deployment in severe weather conditions in off-grid communities that are run and led by Indigenous people,” Poelzer said.

Just last year, Poelzer and a colleague from the University of Alaska’s Centre of Energy and Power went to Deschambault Lake and Pelican Narrows to scope out the most feasible options for renewable energy deployment for Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation.

However, Poelzer knows that buy-in from the communities themselves is the most important element of any potential project. This is why he and others are creating a network of Alaskan, Norwegian, Swedish and Saskatchewan academics that will connect northern Canadian communities to sister communities in those other countries. He emphasizes the importance of partnerships with communities in Saskatchewan.

“We're all treaty peoples and if we're going to be successful as a province, politically, socially, economically, environmentally, we need to walk together and support each other,” he said.

Bringing law education north of 60

On an average day in a Nunavut courtroom, the public is unlikely to see a lawyer or judge who is originally from the territory. The lawyers and judges generally don’t speak the territory’s official language of Inuktitut, either. This is because most legal professionals currently working in Nunavut were educated somewhere else far away, and most have moved to the territory for work without having grown up in Nunavut.

“Right now the Nunavut bar is primarily made up of lawyers that are originally from the south,” said Stephen Mansell (JD’07).

It’s a concern for Mansell, who went to elementary and high school in Iqaluit. While there are a few Inuit lawyers and lawyers originally from Nunavut practicing in the region, Mansell said financial concerns and issues of being isolated from home and family have long been barriers for the Inuit and the people of Nunavut, called Nunavummiut.

“They have families and children here... so it's very difficult to just pick up and go to law school in the south. And it's important to study where your community is and where your support system is,” he said.

Mansell is trying to change the makeup of the courtroom in Nunavut to better reflect its population. In 2017 he became the head of the made-in-Nunavut law program.

The Nunavut Law Program is years in the making, with funding from the Government of Nunavut making it possible. The Nunavut Arctic College and University of Saskatchewan’s College of Law are partnering to teach 25 students of law in their own territory. The program started the first of its four years in the fall of 2017 and is set to send its graduates off once they complete the program in 2021.

A groundbreaking program like this was sure to face some growing pains. One of those is developing the first year of the program in a way that primes its students, many of them returning to school after years in high-level positions in other fields, for a return to academia. On top of focusing on academic writing and research skills to prepare for the next year of full-on law studies, there is a focus on “creating a curriculum that's relevant for Nunavut, trying to incorporate Inuit culture and traditional law into a law school curriculum,” Mansell said.

The program is still working to make its students feel connected to the wider U of S community, but all the challenges are worthwhile when one considers how the program will change the legal landscape in Nunavut. Mansell said these lawyers can ease the intimidating nature of the law and court process for the Nunavummiut.

“There's a need for lawyers in the territory, particularly Inuit lawyers, because they can understand the community that their clients are coming from, they can communicate in the language of their clients and they know the community and the place,” Mansell said.

Bringing vet care north

A veterinary exam in Lac La Ronge.

The Western College of Veterinary Medicine’s (WCVM) twice-annual Lac La Ronge spay, neuter and deworming clinics take place in a hockey rink, and over the years, they have fittingly become a bit of a spectator sport for local residents. The most recent marathon weekend clinic saw a record 98 surgeries and 88 wellness exams performed by the veterinary college and its students.

“We’ll have people who just like literally stop by and stand up in the bleachers because we’re on the rink, the ice surface essentially, doing the spay and neuter [surgeries] so people just come and watch,” said Dr. Karen Sheehan, one of the veterinarians who first piloted the clinic four years ago. She is also a clinical associate at the WCVM’s Veterinary Medical Centre.

The year before the formal university partnership was formed with La Ronge in 2014, Sheehan was among a handful of veterinarians who held a Northern Animal Rescue-sponsored vaccination clinic. Her passion for animals, and her upbringing in rural Prince Edward Island where “I didn’t come from much,” drew her into the volunteer work. Many in the region had previously never learned about the treatments needed to keep pets healthy and to prevent overpopulation, and others simply can't afford trips to the nearest veterinary clinic 240 kilometres away.

“I guess for me personally, I am an extremely empathetic person,” she said.

The captive audience at the Jonas Roberts Memorial Community Centre each year, the vet student trips over to the community’s schools to talk about animal welfare, and the community outreach work that Sheehan spends up to half of her day job setting up, are paying off.

“A couple of years ago I had a 14-year-old girl who lived with her grandparents and she had her grandparents (bring) her puppy to be spayed because the granddaughter felt that that was important. And those are the things that we can provide,” she said.

Another example is that she sees dogs on leash in La Ronge more often now, rather than seeing them roaming free.

There is demand for more of these clinics in communities across the north, and Dr. Sheehan is pulled in all directions throughout the year with requests for veterinary help from people she’s worked with in La Ronge, but she acknowledges there isn't enough manpower to hit them all. She sees the potential benefit of telemedicine, a tool delivered through mobile phones and a device of the future that the university is starting to explore with veterinary medicine.


Tackling women’s health in remote communities

The origins of Dr. Annette Epp’s (MD’88) four trips per year to host gynecological clinics in La Loche are easily traced back to a “serendipitous” suggestion made by her father Ernie Epp decades ago.

Ernie had retired from teaching only to get drawn back into the profession by the high demand for teachers in the north. So he packed up and moved to La Loche. In conversations with Annette about the needs of the community he started pushing her to come up.

“He kind of honestly put it out as, not a dare, but a challenge for me that I should take my skills and put them to use somewhere where it was really needed,” Annette said.

And so, even though Annette was—and still is—terrified of flying, she did.

“I’ve never looked back ever since then,” she said, after more than 15 years of hosting the clinics.

These days she sees about 20 to 25 consults on each trip, doing everything from pap smears for patients who are too uncomfortable to be treated by local staff, to helping women access contraceptives, to checking in on any abnormalities that a woman has come in with. The services Epp offers save many patients a 600-kilometre trip to Saskatoon. For some who only speak Dene or would never be willing to travel to a doctor, Epp is their only shot to address their gynecologic concerns.

If a procedure is needed, Epp works hard to establish a relationship with them in order to make them more comfortable and more likely to travel for that procedure.

“Saskatoon can be a scary place when it isn't a place that you're familiar with and hospitals are scary places no matter what but when I've met them in their home community I feel like they're a lot more comfortable coming to my world,” she said.

She admits that the quick nature of her trips do not leave a lot of time to get to know everyone in La Loche, but said it has been a “privilege” to meet so many women who are among the kindest people she’s ever met.

She encourages anyone coming into a new community for work to be just as eager to engage with the community as they are to work. What it really takes is commitment, she said.

“I think if you just plop people in and they know better, you know, that doesn't work. I think you have to take the time to hear the concerns, and hear the stories, and kind of sit back and reflect and listen to what the needs are and that takes time,” she said.

Overall, she acknowledges that remote communities face unique challenges that are not easily solvable.

“I think that people who are in high resource places who have access to the knowledge base and the technologies and the infrastructure need to partner with leaders in the communities that don’t have this and try and come up with solutions,” she said.

Passion enriching university community

Whether alumni and faculty of the U of S are big picture thinkers who focus mainly on policy and community engagement first, or get their hands dirty helping communities first and think deeper about solutions to their issues over time, they are working hard to build relationships with northern communities in Saskatchewan—and Canada.

There is a passion and inherent love for their field that contributes to the “respect and reciprocity” Ottmann said is needed to build meaningful relationships with the north.

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