Reinventing First Nations Education: Bridges, Transitions and Student Life

July 5, 2016 - The marathon Ontario coroner’s inquest into the deaths of seven First Nations youth in Thunder Bay has finally and mercifully come to an end. We will be spared, for now, from gruesome stories of bodies found in the river.  

The inquiry into the deaths of Jethro Anderson, Curran Strang, Paul Panacheese, Robyn Harper, Reggie Bushie, Kyle Morriseau and Jordan Wabasse from 2000 to 2011 not only aroused painful memories of the Indigenous residential schools’ legacy, but exposed fresh wounds. 

While the coroner’s jury focused rather narrowly on what caused their deaths, most of the 145 recommendations proposed ways of avoiding future tragedies. Many pertain to safeguarding the lives of Indigenous students living in the city in northwestern Ontario.  

After the inquest, it is now clear that, without significant ‘root-and-branch’ changes, First Nations-run residential high schools like Thunder Bay’s Franklin Dennis Cromarty HS, may be imperiled.  The roots of unspoken, systemic racism have also been exposed in testimony.   

Supporting First Nations children and youth making that transition to high school and college in the Ontario North and elsewhere should be a much higher priority of municipal, provincial and federal authorities.    

The federal government has failed to provide equitable funding for education on First Nations reserves. It has also, as First Nations child advocate Cindy Blackstock testified, severely rationed funding for child welfare services. 

Blackstock is no friend of Northern Nishnawbe Education Council (NNEC) residential education. Sending 13-year-olds off to school so far away because they are “denied an equitable education,” she stated, is not wise at all.  “There’s something wrong with that. That’s setting them up for a lot of risk.” 

First Nations leaders such as Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler are not only more optimistic, but far more pragmatic in their outlook.

The high school student numbers and vast geographic distances have tended to dictate sending students off to Thunder Bay, Sioux Lookout, and Timmins. Chief Fiddler was one of those students and still believes that it can be done, albeit with steely perseverance, dedication and commitment.

Since the appearance of my September 2014 Northern Policy Institute research report, Picking Up the Pieces, co-authored with Jonathan Anuik, the earth has moved of the Indigenous and Northern Affairs front. 

The arrival of the Justin Trudeau Liberal government in October 2015 generated what National Chief Perry Bellegarde aptly described as “a warm wind” of good feeling. Peeling away the repeated expressions of goodwill, the time for real action is now.

Building First Nations high schools on or nearer to First Nations communities may well be a better long-term strategy, but that is some time off in the future. As a reflex reaction, it smacks of moving the ‘problem’ out-of-sight, out of mind.

Whether schools are on reserve or not, the time for social reconstruction from the ground-up has arrived. Improving the educational funding levels is imperative, but so is ensuring that those funds actually reach local communities and students in the schools.

Whatever the ultimate plan is, the immediate challenge is to provide the transitional support for First Nations youth struggling to make their way, in or out of school, in Thunder Bay and other cities.

Providing a capital grant of $10-million in infrastructure funding would enable Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School to move boarding students from ‘home-stay’ houses to a new Student Living Centre in Thunder Bay.

For First Nations students at DFC and local colleges, it would become a ‘Gathering Place’ with meeting, recreational, and living spaces housing up to 100 or 150 students.  

Fixing the problems threatening the very existence of DFC and its sister school, Pelican Falls First Nations High School near Sioux Lookout, would be a start. 

The inquest has created a greater sense of urgency. It is now up to the key players, IANC, NNEC, the province of Ontario, the City of Thunder Bay, and local police services, to get on with the job.

Simply ensuring the First Nations teens attending First Nations high schools return home alive is not good enough. An awakened and aroused public is demanding more from us.

A ‘national project’ opening doors, bridging the divide, building resilience and easing the transitions is urgently needed. Let’s get started preparing First Nations children and youth for a new world with much better prospects for satisfying, healthier and fulfilling lives.

By: Paul W. Bennett, Ed.D.,  Senior Education Fellow at the Northern Policy Institute in Thunder Bay and Sudbury, Ontario, and co-author of the NPI research report, Picking Up the Pieces: A Community School-Based Approach to First Nations Education Renewal (2014).

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