Gordon Martell was recently awarded with a national honour for his passion and leadership in advancing Indigenous students.
Martell, a superintendent at Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools, was given a Guiding the Journey: Indigenous Educator Award from Indspire in mid-March. The honour is given to people who take on leadership roles in the educational community that foster achievement among kindergarten to Grade 12 students.
Martell said he feels like the achievement “recognizes a bit of the fight that’s always been a part of my motivation.”
Martell knows poverty and marginalization first-hand as part of his urban Aboriginal experience while growing up.
Born on the Waterhen Lake First Nation in northwestern Saskatchewan in the 1960s, Martell said his mother met his father while teaching on the reserve. The family moved to Saskatoon in the 1970s and unravelled. As a student, Martell remembers his inability to fit in. He trained as a welder after high school, but discovered it was difficult to attain a job in the trade. Soon after, relatives who were enrolled in the Indian Teacher Education Program at the University of Saskatchewan convinced him to join them. “I flourished in school and really was awakened to Indigenous issues in Canada and around the world. I turned my fight into action and became very involved in Indigenous education,” Martell said.
He began teaching at the Beauval Indian Education Centre in northern Saskatchewan and then returned to Saskatoon to complete his masters. It was then that Martell first started teaching with Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools, wanting to work part time while attending school. From there, he became vice-principal and then the Division’s inaugural Co-ordinator of First Nations and Metis Education. From there, he accepted a superintendent position within the Division – a position that he continues to hold today.
He said in the education sector, opportunities abound to advance a place for First Nations and Metis learners. “The focus on 21st century learning skills opens a door to Indigenous student participation as we come from rich traditions of abstract thought and problem solving,” he said.
Martell admits he has been fortunate to be a part of many great successes during his career. One of the most recent sees the renewal of one of Martell’s schools, Oskayak High School. As an associate school of Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools since 1980, Martell said its original mission was to re-claim Indigenous youth that were not being served well by mainstream high schools. He said while it achieved many successes over the course of three decades, outcomes had recently become limited.
“I instigated a conversation that led to a school turn-around,” he said. Martell noted that the parent council, teachers and students all answered the call to re-examine what constitutes success and build structures to achieve that success. The bold move instantly proved positive.
“Over the course of three years we have seen a 35 per cent increase in enrolment, 28 per cent increase in attendance and a 45 per cent increase in credit delivery,” Martell said. “Three years ago there were three graduates, two years ago 30 graduates, last year 40 and this year we anticipate approximately 50 graduates.
“We have achieved this by being responsible to our roles, by raising the bar for the youth and supporting them to achieve their goals through the use of technology, problem-based learning and partnerships,” he said.
He credits several people within the division for providing encouragement and helping to facilitate his career path, including Jerry Zimmer and Bev Hanson. He also praised his principals, who were the primary nominators of Martell for the Indspire award. “I work with an amazing group of principals who work very hard for the advancement of First Nations and Metis students,” he said.
Martell said coming from the Inspire organization, “I feel that the award is from my people and I am particularly proud of that.”