THEO LETANDRE, 30
Theo Letandre dropped out of school in the sixth grade.
The final showdown in the principal's office still stands out as a painful memory. The principal told him he'd amount to nothing, destined be a jailbird, he said.
Two years later, Mr. Letandre joined the Indian Posse, one of Canada's largest street gangs, and began a short-lived criminal apprenticeship.
At 17, having moved to Dauphin, Man., he was living a marginal life and barely getting by. He decided to try an adult literacy program, where he met a teacher who encouraged him.
He worked the graveyard shift at a convenience store to pay his way. He had to do it on his own because his support network had no extra money to help him. His mother left school in Grade 7. She was too young to raise him, so he was raised by his grandparents. He'd never known his father.
He started Grade 9 at 18. He went to parent-teacher night on his own behalf, which impressed the teachers, and finished high school at 21. After graduation he worked for a year at a gas bar. He went on a journey to find his father, but they had a disagreement and his father disowned him.
Anger began to eat at him, but he thought of an aunt and uncle – she was a teacher and he worked for Manitoba Hydro – who had always served as an example to him. They had the kind of life he wanted. He took a course to be a teacher's assistant and got a job at the local school. He liked it so much he wanted to further his education, so he moved to Winnipeg to attend Red River College. He joined a transition program that prepares aboriginal students for the college proper, then started an introductory trades course.
In the summer of 2009, though, back on the reserve, he went out drinking. He and a girl ended up in a terrible car accident. His leg was nearly severed below the knee. He was in a coma for days and in hospital for several months. He needed more than 15 surgeries to reattach the leg. They told him he would never walk again.
As he lay in the hospital bed, he worried. He had always planned to earn a living through physical labour. How could he be a tradesman if he couldn't lift or climb? He couldn't go to school, so his education allowance of $675 a month, a meagre existence to begin with, was cut off. He went on social assistance.
But last year, able to walk again, he re-enrolled in a business administration program. This summer, he was behind on rent. His girlfriend wanted to pack it in and head back to life on the reserve. But he gave it one last try, and after his fifth interview for a government position he was hired to work an office job. It was a high point. He now expects to graduate in 2015.
CHRISTIAN OKEMOW, 39
Christian Okemow went to school up to Grade 9 in God's Lake Narrows, Man., a remote reserve northeast of Winnipeg. At 15, if he wanted to continue his education, he had to go south to a bigger centre. But his father had been in a residential school. So had his uncles. They told him their stories growing up. His father said the beatings were so bad he wanted to kill himself. Mr. Okemow balked. He couldn't do it.
"I didn't want to leave. I was scared. I'd heard the stories," he said.
In his family, the priority was learning how to live the traditional way: hunting, fishing, trapping. So that's what he did. He hunted and fished and collected social assistance. When summer rolled around, he usually got a few weeks paid employment.
When he was 20, his best friend was murdered, beaten to death by a mob on the reserve. Another close friend went out in the bush and hanged himself shortly after, one of four people close to him who killed themselves in a few years. Mr. Okemow was in a bad mental state. He drank heavily. "I filled myself with anger and hate," he said. At one point, he tried to take his own life with a shotgun. He survived the blast to his stomach.
His wife, Paula, dreamed of an education. They moved to Thompson when he was 24 so she could attend the University College of the North. She completed a year, but he struggled in the city and pushed to move back home. They raised their three children on the shores of God's Lake.
As the children went to school, Mr. Okemow and his wife grew frustrated with the local school. It seemed to close for a time every year, he said. The reasons varied. The children's studies suffered. His wife wanted to leave but Mr. Okemow was reluctant. Eventually they decided to move to Winnipeg so she could pursue her studies, and to find a more stable school for their kids.
His wife found her way to the Urban Circle training centre, where she completed an educator's assistant program that led to a university degree course. Mr. Okemow worked minimum-wage jobs. But as their eldest son started Grade 11, Mr. Okemow saw that his kids would soon have the diploma that he never got. He wanted to be a better example to them. He started at Urban Circle this summer. He hopes to finish his high school diploma in the next few months.
"Education is the best way out of poverty. I know what poverty does to a family," he said. "I wasn't educated enough to see what education can do for you, the healing it can do for you. It helps you see the better side of life. I took a step forward. I feel better. I feel healthier. I walk down the street with my head high. … My kids, they're doing really well in school. Their marks are all in the 80s and 90s. I love their goals and ambitions. When they tell me about their goals, that lifts me up, that tells me that my wife and I are doing something right."
JENNIFER KSIONZENA, 43
Jennifer Ksionzena grew up in the coal-mining town of Sparwood, B.C., one of only a handful of aboriginal children in the town. Her mother is Dene from Ross River in the Yukon, her father the Canadian son of Polish immigrants.
"Let me tell you my journey through education," she said, "because it's filled with lots of stops and starts, which I gather is common [among aboriginal people]."
She excelled early on. Her parents liked to drink, sometimes all night, but even if she hadn't slept, they made sure she got out the door to school. Her mother had been a student at a residential school, but has never said a word about what happened there, Ms. Ksionzena said.
Upon her graduation from the local high school, she received a fancy plaque in the mail from her home reserve. They even paid for her prom dress, a teal satin, southern belle special with puffy sleeves and a big bow at the back. It was 1988.
"I didn't know that at that time it was a big deal for aboriginal people to graduate," she said.
She went to the local community college, where her average marks felt discouraging after the As and Bs she earned in high school.
"I didn't know to look for support," she said. "I didn't do very well at community college. That was very damaging to me."
She went to bible college for two years in Alberta, but that wasn't going to lead to a job. Her father told her the pressure was on to find a career. She went on to college in Kamloops. She had a 3.8 GPA after her first year and decided to follow an inspiring teacher to Simon Fraser University in Burnaby. It was a terrible mistake, she said.
"I had the worst year of my life," she said. "My GPA went all the way down until I was on academic probation. My biology class had 500 people. It was hollow, dead. I hated it."
She was shy and unsure of herself. So much so that she was unable to seek the help that could have halted her slide.
"It was hard for me to communicate that I was having problems," she said. "I was really painfully shy."
She dropped out and moved to Calgary. She worked as a housekeeper in a hotel for four years, just scraping by. Then she took a course in administration and found work as a receptionist. Eventually her boss told her she was too smart for the job and needed to expand her horizons.
It was in 2009, when the elections for national chief were held in Calgary that she wanted to explore her aboriginal identity. She attended a lunch session for businesswomen at the conference. Looking around the room, she realized she didn't look out of place.
"I could be one of these people if I went back to school," she thought.
She enrolled at the University of Calgary in 2010, still on academic probation from her time at SFU. She's now in the Indigenous Studies program, working part-time at Nexen Energy and planning to graduate next year.
"It's the best decision I've made. I'm so happy."