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Innovative new programs give teens a stronger chance to stay in school, to retain their culture and to escape the hazards of the streets

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Three teenagers in the Oji-Cree community of Neskantaga go for a walk on a sunny day in August, a few weeks before their journey south to Thunder Bay. There, they and other First Nations youth from the region will attend the Matawa school, one of two Indigenous high schools in the city.Photography by Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Along the rocky shores of Attawapiskat Lake, troubling visions of the big city are weighing heavily on those who are making the journey to a faraway school this September.

In the final days before Wednesday’s first day of classes, the teenagers were boarding small airplanes and flying to Thunder Bay from their homes in Neskantaga, an isolated Oji-Cree community in the northern bush. As their parents reminded them of safety precautions to take in the city, the students couldn’t help remembering the Indigenous youths who died there.

“It’s making me nervous because it’s Thunder Bay,” 15-year-old Lashee Waswa said. “It’s dangerous, it’s deadly. When you walk on the streets, you never feel safe. Anything can happen.”

But this year, for the First Nations students in the city, there is more help than ever before. A growing number are enrolling at a fast-expanding Indigenous school, Matawa Learning Centre, where innovative new programs will give them a stronger chance to stay in school, to retain their culture and to escape the hazards of the streets.

The innovations are inspired by the recommendations of a 2016 inquest into the deaths of seven Indigenous young people in Thunder Bay. Most of those who died were found in rivers in the city. Most were teenagers who boarded with families in Thunder Bay because they didn’t have high schools in their home communities. The causes of their deaths have been classified as accidental or unknown.

A report in August by lawyers from Aboriginal Legal Services, who represented the families of six of the seven youths at the inquest, praised the new programs at two Indigenous high schools: Matawa Learning Centre and Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School.

The programs are aimed at easing the culture shock of the transition to the city – and ensuring the safety of the students, so that they won’t find themselves vulnerable to assault or accident in risky areas.

Lashee was happy to learn that her new school, Matawa, is arranging to have drivers on call every night to help students get home if they encounter dangers in the city.

“I’ve heard there is a lot of support,” she said as she relaxed with friends on an August afternoon outside the Northern Store, the sole grocery store in Neskantaga, a community of about 300 people.

“You can ask anyone for help. You just call them and they’ll come to you.”

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Lashee Waswa, 15, laughs with her friend Yvette Slipperjack, 14. Both are heading to Thunder Bay to study.

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The Matawa school brings together students from nine northern First Nations, and aims to help them make a safe and smooth adjustment from rural to urban life.

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A dream catcher hangs in a second-floor window at the Matawa school. The institution has drivers on call to help students get home safely.

Matawa enrolls students from the nine northern First Nations that belong to the Matawa tribal council. The school expects to have more than 60 staff and up to 180 students this year – a sharp rise from just a few years ago when it had a single teacher and 30 students.

In addition to the drivers on call at night, the school has special programs to minimize the cultural dislocation of the move to the city. First Nations elders and cultural workers are embedded in Matawa’s classes, allowing teachers to call on them for Indigenous expertise on any subject. Students can earn academic credits for cultural activities such as building a sweat lodge.

The school has also created a four-bedroom “safe sobering site” within its building – another recommendation of the inquest, so that students are more likely to get counselling and less likely to end up on dangerous riversides when they are intoxicated. (Two other similar sites have now been created in Thunder Bay.) And the school has mental-health workers and trauma counsellors on staff, to help students cope with disruptive events in their lives. “It’s a strong safety net for the students,” said Brad Battiston, the school’s principal. “It’s supportive and non-judgmental.”

For the teens, these are not merely theoretical issues. Last winter, a 15-year-old student from Neskantaga, who was attending a Catholic high school in Thunder Bay, died by suicide during the school year. It deeply shocked the community. She was a bright student and a powwow dancer who had shown an interest in Indigenous politics. Her suicide was an intensely traumatic event for the young Neskantaga students, and most returned to their northern homes for weeks afterward.

“When we lost that young girl, it was devastating for them,” said Wayne Moonias, a former chief of Neskantaga, who has three children at Matawa school. “It was very difficult to console them. This is a small community and everyone knows everyone. They were very distraught.”

But he praised the staff at Matawa for their response. They heard about the suicide, provided counselling for the students, contacted their parents and community leaders to offer help, and modified the school schedule to minimize the disruption and to help the students to catch up quickly after the crisis. “They don’t want a student to leave the school because of a lack of support,” Mr. Moonias said. “As a parent, I’m very grateful for the support they give.”

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Wayne Moonias, Neskantaga's former chief, cooks burgers and hot dogs at a community barbecue. He has three children at the Matawa school.

Matawa specializes in flexibility. It has a continuous enrolment system, allowing students to enroll later in the year if they want to switch from another school. It brings Grade 8 students to Thunder Bay for an orientation visit before classes begin. It allows students to learn at their own pace, sometimes resuming classes after long interruptions. When a student has to fly home for a family emergency or personal crisis, the school can adjust their class schedule and provide distance education to ensure that they don’t drop out. Students can take up to three years to earn a credit.

As part of $19-million in federal assistance to Matawa, the school has moved into a large new building, a former retirement lodge, where it is creating a 100-room dormitory. When construction is completed next year, it will allow the younger and more vulnerable students to live at the school, avoiding the need to board at a stranger’s house.

After the deaths of the seven youths in Thunder Bay, some parents in Neskantaga decided to keep their children at home, rather than sending them to the city for high school. Others, including Mr. Moonias, pulled their students from mainstream schools and sent them to Matawa instead. He says his 21-year-old daughter would not have graduated from high school if it wasn’t for Matawa’s counselling support and cultural programs. For young teenagers who grew up in remote northern communities, the regular schools in Thunder Bay can be “overwhelming,” he says.

There is little doubt about the need for Matawa’s support in a city where racism is still common and sometimes violent. “I always carried a pocket knife,” said Lashee, who attended a Catholic school in Thunder Bay last year before switching to Matawa this year. “I’ve had people driving past me and throwing things at me.”

First Nations parents give safety lessons to their children before they arrive in Thunder Bay: Avoid the riversides and the downtown areas, never walk on the streets alone, stay away from strangers and keep in contact with their parents as much as possible. “It’s a big concern when we send our students out,” said Gary Quisess, an elected councillor in Neskantaga. “Sometimes a student leaves and they come home in a box. It’s scary to see it. It’s a never-ending story.”

His 17-year-old grandson, Elias Atlookan, stood on the shores of Attawapiskat Lake and gazed out at its cold waters as he contemplated the approaching school year in Thunder Bay. One of his closest friends was among the seven youths whose deaths were the subject of the inquest in 2016. He said he has often heard racist comments hurled at him in Thunder Bay. It bothers him, but he tries to ignore it, knowing he could get into danger if he reacts. “When I go outside, to a store, I look behind my back every minute or two,” he said. “I always stay aware of my surroundings.”

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Elias Atlookan, 17, spends some time at the lake with his grandfather, councillor Gary Quisess.

While the programs at Matawa will help to protect its students from the hazards of the streets, the threats are not just external – they are also internal.

Neskantaga declared a state of emergency in 2013 because of the high number of suicides among its young people, and it has kept the emergency in place this year. Drugs are another threat. A report in 2017 showed that 48 of the 300 residents of Neskantaga were taking Suboxone as treatment for opioid addictions.

Allan Moonias, an elected councillor at Neskantaga, recalled how his teenage son lost a friend to suicide. His school year was disrupted and he later applied to enter Matawa. The school adjusted its schedules to help him finish Grade 8 as he prepared for his high-school classes.

“I never saw anything like that when I went to school,” Mr. Moonias said. “I was 13 or 14 years old, and it was my first time in Thunder Bay. It was hard. I was lost.”

The suicides have touched almost every family in the community. The 15-year-old who killed herself in Thunder Bay last winter was a granddaughter of Mr. Quisess. He and his grandson are still struggling to cope with her death.

“We go out in the bush to work on our grief,” he says. “We yell and shout together, just to get our feelings out. It brings us strength.”

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Mr. Atlookan, like many other youth in Neskantaga, will soon be heading south to Thunder Bay.

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