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McCartney Beardy plays floor hockey in gym class at Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School in Thunder Bay. His home community in Northern Ontario, Weagamow, is two hours away by plane.

Photography by David Jackson/The Globe and Mail

For First Nation students who come from remote communities, and who do not have relatives to stay with in Thunder Bay while attending high school, billeting with unfamiliar residents remains a fact of life – and life in those homes can be very lonely. In some cases, the youngsters are spending hours on city buses navigating an unfamiliar community to get to school, an isolating experience that has exposed some students to harassment.

Building a student residence at Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School (DFC) was a key recommendation in 2016 from a coroner’s inquest that examined the circumstances that contributed to the deaths of seven Indigenous youth, six of whom had studied at DFC. Yet, plans to build on-campus accommodation appear to be at an impasse, as the federal government and the project’s First Nation administrators clash over student-population projections after years of declining enrolment at the school.

In the past decade, enrolment at DFC has averaged about 170 students, and peaked at 222 in the 2010-11 academic year, according to data provided by the school. Since 2012, the student population has been on a steady decline, falling to its lowest point last year at 120 students, although 148 were enrolled this fall.

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Principal Sharon Angeconeb attributes the decline to parents not wanting “to send their young people to Thunder Bay because of the student deaths,” she said, “and that’s totally understandable.” The hope is that on-campus accommodation would help put parents at ease, and boost enrolment.

Promoting safety and a healthy learning environment for students – especially those who leave their homes in small First Nation communities at a young age to attend high school – were central themes in the coroner’s 145 inquest recommendations. Drowning or ethanol intoxication contributed to most of the seven deaths probed by the inquest, although the circumstances leading up to three of the deaths are still unknown. Four of the death investigations are being reopened as part of an independent review announced by the Thunder Bay police in June.

In 2017, Indigenous Services Canada approved up to $300,000 in funding for a site analysis of DFC. The money was earmarked for Northern Nishnawbe Education Council (NNEC), a federally funded non-profit organization that services 23 First Nation communities and runs the DFC school.

The student population projections in the feasibility study would factor into a decision on whether to renovate the existing school or build a new one. The data would also help to determine the size of the building and student residence, and therefore, the financial investment.

In the intervening years since the Seven Youth Inquest, “we have stabilized to a certain extent, but the population is not growing the way that we had been told that it would grow,” said Anne Scotton, Ontario’s regional director general at Indigenous Services Canada. “The feasibility study appears to be the stumbling block,” Ms. Scotton said. “I can’t speak for the group that’s trying to get this project together, but I can tell you that we are frustrated.”

The frustrations appear to be felt by both sides.

Norma Kejick, executive director at the Northern Nishnawbe Education Council, said the projection disagreement is holding up the project, which also includes construction plans on the school building itself. “We know what we want. They need the numbers to substantiate what we want, how [many] students we want to put in the school,” Ms. Kejick said. “The school is in shambles. We can’t be in there anymore,” she said of the state of disrepair at DFC, citing the presence of asbestos amid her concerns.

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DFC's enrollment has been steadily declining since 2012. This fall, it has 148 students; last year's enrollment, 120, was its lowest point ever.

A tepee stands in DFC's yard. Students have made several trips to Ottawa to appeal the federal government for on-campus accommodation.

Mr. Beardy catches up on homework. He has family in Thunder Bay, but was nervous about moving here from Weagamow to study.

The education council has hired three consulting companies to work on the study, which was not ready by the last deadline of this spring. The study is now expected to be complete this fiscal year, said Martine Stevens, a media-relations representative with Indigenous Services Canada.

Craig Baker, general manager at First Nations Engineering Services Ltd., a consultant for the DFC project, said the study has been at a standstill for several months. The company completed its assessment of the building and submitted conceptual architectural drawings of the facilities in a report to the education council in August, 2018. He said his team was committed to having the feasibility study complete by this fall, “but our hands have been tied substantially here from making any type of progress on this.”

DFC students have travelled to Ottawa multiple times to make appeals to the government for on-campus accommodation. In one of those visits, the students met with Senator Marilou McPhedran, who put questions about the status of the DFC project to then-Indigenous Services minister Seamus O’Regan during Question Period in Parliament in April. In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Ms. McPhedran said a female DFC student had told her about a time when she and a friend were commuting home and had to wait almost two hours for a bus to arrive. While doing so, they were accosted by men driving by in a car. The girls managed to run away. Such experiences faced by Indigenous students show “the high risk that many of them are living with daily just to get to school, and the cost to them by being isolated, not near their families, not near their communities,” Ms. McPhedran said.

Recently, the federal government provided $19-million in funding to the Matawa Learning Centre in Thunder Bay. The money will be used to renovate a former retirement lodge into a 100-room dormitory and school that will be run by Matawa tribal council. Meanwhile, the wait for DFC students continues.

For new students such as McCartney Beardy, the idea of moving to Thunder Bay made him nervous, even though he has relatives in the city. His home in Weagamow – a remote First Nations community in Northern Ontario – is a two-hour flight away. Mr. Beardy’s mother warned him to stay away from alcohol and drugs, which were part of his eldest brother’s life years ago, when he had also left home to study at DFC. Fortunately, the ninth-grader with dreams of becoming a surgeon would be under the watchful eyes of family members, boarding with his aunt and cousin.

Mr. Beardy is lucky in another way, being about a five-minute walk away from DFC, where another cousin of his has to take an hour-long bus ride each way. “It would be amazing knowing that you’re close to the school, and there’s people around you that you know,” he said.


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