As she sits to have her picture taken, Grit McCreath radiates an infectious, down-to-earth good humour capable of setting anyone at ease. A bright smile and sparkling eyes, McCreath, who has just been installed as the 16th chancellor of the University of Saskatchewan (USask), cracks jokes, talks about her grandsons and notes all the fanfare is quite foreign to her. “I think this is my second photo shoot,” she admits with a laugh. “Can you make me look 50?”
And while the pomp and circumstance associated with the new job might take some getting used to, 71-year-old McCreath – a self-described off-the-charts extrovert – is perfectly suited as chancellor. Indeed, it’s as if she’s been preparing for it all her life.
“I never would have dreamt that this was going to happen,” she reveals. “But then looking back, it almost seems like I’ve been gearing up for it all along – like a culmination of my career.”
A teacher for over 30 years, McCreath has deep roots in Saskatchewan, where her immigrant parents (her father was a Russian Mennonite and her mother was German) landed in 1949, when she was just a baby. Educated and taught at the post-secondary level in their home countries, both her parents ended up as students at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.
“They got credit for one year of university beyond Grade 12,” McCreath says, “so, they had to continue their studies. We [McCreath had three brothers] grew up near the university. My parents were always students and I replicated that in some ways because I’ve always been a student.”
She loved school and knew from a young age that she wanted to teach. “I just gunned for it,” she recalls enthusiastically. “I got to university and couldn’t wait to get into the classroom.” During her first year teaching – one of only a few new hires in the province that year – McCreath met fellow University of Saskatchewan graduate Scott, who she has now been married to for the past 50 years. The drought of jobs in Saskatchewan, however, forced the young couple east.
In Toronto, McCreath obtained a new teaching job, as she did when the couple eventually moved to Edmonton (where they had two sons) and then to Calgary in 1988. She’s taught almost every subject and grade, and eventually moved into the administration side while working at the Calgary Board of Education (CBE).
“I worked at 10 schools in my career,” she marvels. “Many high-needs schools with poverty, language and some gang issues. And it was just amazing to see the difference education makes in the lives of kids who don’t have the resources.”
She remains close to many of her previous students, some of whom attended her installation as chancellor, including current Saskatchewan deputy premier and Minister of Education Gordon Wyant, Q.C. “I went to an event for him just 10 days ago and he stands up to introduce his family and then says, ‘And I’d also like to introduce Miss Hildebrandt, my teacher from Grosvenor Park Elementary School,’” she laughs. “And there I was!”
Upon retirement from teaching 18 years ago, McCreath became more involved with her alma matter. She joined the university senate as a member-at-large in 2006, remaining in that role until she was elected as the senate representative on the board of governors in 2009. She sat on the board for six years until 2015, when she was named as the university’s first honorary ambassador.
“It was a great role,” she says, “I visited alumni associations across the country and in the U.S., and hosted many alumni events.” The University of Saskatchewan has 159,000 alumni worldwide.
It’s a fitting job for Calgary-based McCreath, considering this city has the largest number of alumni – over 10,000 – outside Saskatchewan.
“Back in the day, the economy was booming here, but not so much in Saskatchewan,” McCreath says. “So, a lot of people came out here, including Scott and me. It’s a story of people putting down roots. We often joke about it being Little Saskatchewan here; there’s a strong sense of community.”
Among those alumni are business owners, executives, provincial judges and lawyers, engineers, doctors, authors, philanthropists and, of course, many teachers. “I used to do some interviewing for the CBE,” she reminisces with a chuckle, “and there was a joke that if you had a degree from the University of Saskatchewan you might have a leg-up if McCreath was interviewing you.”
Many Calgary alumni offspring – including one of McCreath’s own sons – have attended the university as well, something she takes great delight in. “It’s wonderful when the students decide to go back and have a little connection to mom or dad.” Among her own extended family, there are a total of 23 degrees from USask. “And you never know, one of my four little grandsons might end up there too.”
As chancellor, McCreath will continue to advocate energetically on behalf of the university, which today has more than 25,700 students from 132 countries. “Our Global Institute for Water Security is the top water resources research institute in Canada and one of the most advanced cold regions hydrology centres in the world,” she says proudly. “Our public administration, veterinary sciences, environmental sciences and engineering, and agricultural sciences all rank very high as well.”
She’s thrilled to be working with USask president Peter Stoicheff, as well as the “gifted faculty and leadership team, and will continue to foster the close ties between Calgary and the university, noting the commute is negligible. “I don’t have kids at home anymore and I don’t know how to knit, so I’m not staying home to do that.”
Apart from her work at USask, McCreath and her husband are philanthropists who support charities in education, the arts, the environment and homelessness. “The university has been our focus for a long time,” she says. “Students really are number one for us. Scott is the executive-in-residence at the Edwards School of Business at the U of S. We also support the arts. The Remai Modern art gallery in Saskatoon certainly is a passion of ours.” They have also both sat on the Waskesiu Foundation in Prince Albert National Park, where the family has had a cottage on the lake for years.
In Alberta, she sits on the board of the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies in Banff, has been an integral member of the RESOLVE Campaign to end homelessness in Calgary and has been involved with the YWCA, having chaired the Calgary board in the past. She was also heavily involved with the Famous 5 Foundation.
For her significant contributions to Saskatchewan, McCreath was awarded the Order of Merit in 2019, both a proud and humbling moment in her life.
“I’ve spent a lot of my life realizing that we get here on the shoulders of so many people,” she reflects. “So, there is a debt of gratitude that runs deep in our family. We take the opportunity to give back.” She also keeps a grateful journal. “To live in this country, at this time, we’ve won the lottery.”
Gratitude and optimism are a constant theme in McCreath’s approach to life. In her first convocation address in November, she offered three pieces of advice to the new graduands: “Be positive, the world belongs to the optimist; plan your life; and don’t forget your roots.”
Living proof of her advice, McCreath embarks on this next chapter full of energy, enthusiasm and anticipation. “I’m unbelievably proud,” she humbly admits. “I have an overwhelming sense of pride and I just want to do my best.”