In the years from 1958 to 1960 a number of circumstances occurred which focused attention on the educational needs of Aboriginal and other children in the forested region of Northern Alberta, particularly that area lying between the Peace and the Athabasca Rivers north of Lac La Biche. At that time limited educational programs were being provided in the following types of schools:
- Schools operated by the Federal Government where Métis children were accepted as a matter of courtesy but not by right;
- Mission schools, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, which operated with limited Government assistance;
- Métis Colony schools financed by the Department of Education but operated by the Department of Public Welfare;
- Isolated independent public and separate school districts providing local service.
During these years two factors precipitated a crisis. One was the rapidly growing school enrolment, arising not so much from the “population explosion” that was occurring in most parts of the province but from lower infant mortality rates. One consequence of this increased enrolment, actual or potential, was that Federal schools were crowded with First Nations children and the Indian Affairs branch of the Federal Department of Citizenship and Immigration expressed the view that Métis children could no longer be accommodated in those schools without more formal arrangements to provide staff and classrooms. During the period under review, four (4) school districts were established to facilitate such arrangements. Mission schools were also affected by the rising number of school aged children and the rising cost of education which depleted their limited financial resources. Church authorities therefore appealed for the establishment of public school districts; and, consequently eight public school districts were created.
By the fall of 1960, the Department of Education was highly involved in the operation of over 20 northern schools which did not include the Métis Colony Schools. Some structural organization seemed desirable to administer these increasing responsibilities. The best model seemed to be that of Saskatchewan; there the Department of Education had established its Northern Schools Branch with its own professional and support staff.
Effective as it was, however, it also suffered the disadvantages inherent in any governmental operation. Since the schools were operated by the government, changes could take place only at a snail’s pace, much too slowly for the rate of change that the province’s north was experiencing. Further, as a branch of government, the system was subject to political pressure.
However, it was suggested to Alberta’s Minister of Education that there was a model in the province, which would embody the advantages of the Saskatchewan prototype and at the same time avoid all or most of its disadvantages. This was the school division.
On December 30, 1960, the Minister of Education established the Northland School Division comprising over 30 school districts and some 20 schools. (Source: J.W. Chalmers, 1985).
Northland School Division operated with official and appointed Trustees from 1961 to 1983 at which time the first Local School Board Committees were elected. From 1983 - 2010, the Division’s Board has comprised of Chairpersons from the Local School Board Committees. On January 21, 2010 the Minister of Education appointed Dr. Colin J. Kelly as Official Trustee. The Local School Board Committees remain in an advisory role to the schools.
On July 13, 2016, Minister of Education David Eggen announced the appointment of Lois Byers as official trustee. Lois has an extensive background in governance and community engagement. She spent 15 years as a school board trustee, serving as Vice-Chair of County of Minburn Board of Education, Chair of Elk Island Public Schools and President of Alberta School Boards Association. She also served 6 years as Co-Chair of Region 5 Child & Family Services Board before moving onto financial planning and has spent the last 6 years working as her own consulting company, Smiling LB Consulting. Lois also taught school for over 10 years.
Lois’s current work is as a Community Development Practitioner, using the principles of community building and development in all her work. She has facilitated many projects to successful completion from governance orientation to setting up child cares; recycling to community workshops for organization development; and strategic planning to budget reviews. She believes strongly in community engagement, building the capacity of people and the power of diversity and good process. Empty-nesters, Lois and her husband Les reside on their cattle farm in Vegreville. Their children are not far away though and they are thankful they get to see them often through many family get-togethers.