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26th annual conference highlights why rural education matters around the world

With an emphasis on connecting beyond borders, the 26th annual National Congress on Rural Education in Canada seized on the opportunities presented by a virtual conference to broaden its focus to an international audience.

“Our silver 25th anniversary congress was cancelled last year due to the start of the pandemic, and the bright light in the re-envisioning afforded us a new online platform and an incredibly diverse list of presenters from ten countries throughout the world,” said congress director Dr. Dawn Wallin.

Hosted by the Department of Educational Administration and supported by the Saskatchewan Educational Leadership Unit (SELU) in USask’s College of Education, this year the National Congress brought together over 260 participants that included representation from local governance bodies such as school board chairs and trustees, researchers, graduate students, educational consultants, and school administrators and teachers. Event sponsors included the Government of Saskatchewan, the University of Saskatchewan Conference Fund, SaskTel, Work Safe Saskatchewan and Eaglefeather News. The congress took place March 28 and 29.

“Our goal every year is to ensure our event is relevant and appreciates the very unique needs of rural spaces, people and all the communities that they support,” said Wallin.

The conference theme focused on Rural Education Beyond Borders: Reframing the Conversation and included a keynote on leadership by The Honourable Bev Busson, Senator of Canada and the first female commissioner of the RCMP. The event included an opening prayer by Elder Donald Speidel, video remarks from His Honour Russell Mirasty, the Lieutenant Governor of Saskatchewan, and Métis jigging by students Kate Boyer and Kurt Natomagan. Dr. Beth Bilson, interim dean, College of Education and the Honourable Dustin Duncan, Minister of Education, Government of Saskatchewan also provided remarks.

The second day of the conference opened with an international expert panel livestreamed from locations in China, Norway and the United States. Dr. Unn-Doris K. Baeck from UIT Arctic University of Norway, Dr. Liu Jing from Beijing Normal University and Dr. Allen Pratt from the University of Tennessee described their local rural education contexts, struggles, policies and initiatives, while speaking passionately about “why rural matters”.

“One important aspect for being interested in rural education as a research matter are the costs connected such as young people dropping out of high school. It’s an individual cost but it also is a cost to the ability to retain resilience and local community,” shared Dr. Baeck.

Dr. Jing spoke of how education is a fundamental human right, and it also matters to the individual future of each student. In China and beyond, a large population lives in rural areas, many of which are natural areas that are culturally significant.

“Education is an investment in the future of our rural communities,” added Dr. Pratt. “As we move to a global marketplace, we have to teach our students to be proud to be from a rural community. I think there is opportunity to deal with the issues that we face.”

The knowledge sharing continued throughout 48 learning presentations moderated by College of Education teacher candidates. Sessions included how to effectively provide early childhood education for rural children, the need for citizenship education, decolonizing teacher education in professional development school models, and growing innovation across rural sites of learning.

For longtime congress attendee and school board trustee with the Living Sky School Division Ronna Pethick, the new format of the congress was especially welcomed on the day the province experienced a spring storm that wreaked havoc on highway and city travel and took out powerlines.

“Usually when we have rural congress, it’s always bad weather!” shared Pethick. She added, “I really appreciate having access to professional development like this even though we can’t meet in person, because this is the next best thing.”

Pethick was appointed by the Saskatchewan School Boards Association to represent the organization on the rural congress advisory planning committee and appreciates that her input is welcomed by the college and by SELU.

“I find each congress is so different and offers such a diverse quality of people who really can give you a good cross section of education and how to deliver that education in a diverse way to rural Canada and to rural Saskatchewan,” Pethick said. “Our kids are doing such innovative things in our schools, and congress is a way to highlight that. It’s also a way to maybe do things differently.”

The event closed with a keynote by Dr. Dianne Looker, professor emerita at Mount Saint Vincent and Acadia Universities and a researcher who has spent most of her career studying rural youth and their transitions to adulthood, including issues of mobility and stability. Her presentation took a statistical view of the rural-urban differences and the importance of looking at how we define rural or remote. It was clear that considering rural issues in Canada requires one to understand the complex history of indigenous people in rural areas. 

She also spoke of why access to an education is critical when it comes to rural communities and how some of the potentials of the COVID-19 pandemic are the technological advances made for online learning and the hybrid models being implemented, including those discussed throughout the congress.

“I’ve heard some really innovative ideas today from presenters in terms of community hubs, and the sharing of resource and specialized teachers across rural schools that have helped with the struggles that remote and rural schools face with teacher recruitment and retention,” said Looker. “And the online learning during COVID has highlighted the issues related to school busing, early rising and sleep issues for students.”

In all, the move to the virtual conference provided greater flexibility for participants and will be a format option the congress planning committee will consider for next year’s event.

“We’ve had great feedback from attendees on the accessibility and diversity the virtual format presented, as well as some ideas on what to consider for next year,” said Wallin. “We’ll definitely be exploring how to maintain a virtual component while also ensuring that the relationality of rural congress that has been a signature feature of our face-to-face event remains.”

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For a full agenda of the National Congress on Rural Education in Canada, visit selu.usask.ca.

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