First Nations chiefs in Northern Ontario are taking steps to increase safety measures to protect Indigenous students who will travel from their remote reserves to the racially charged city of Thunder Bay in the fall.
The Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN), which represents 49 Ontario communities, ended a two-day emergency meeting on Thursday in Thunder Bay at the First Nations-run school gymnasium, the site of funerals for some Indigenous teens in recent years. NAN voted to create an emergency education task force that will look to implement short-term safety supports for students this September.
Racial tensions have been building in this part of the country, where the strained relationship between city police and the Indigenous community has recently made headlines. A coroner's inquest that looked into the deaths of seven Indigenous youths between 2000 and 2011 concluded last year; six of the students attended Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School, a First Nations-run school. All the teens were originally from remote reserves and had moved to Thunder Bay to pursue a high-school education, which they couldn't do on reserve. More recently, the bodies of 17-year-old Tammy Keeash and 14-year-old Josiah Begg were found in the city's waterways.
The NAN meeting came as Barbara Kentner, an Indigenous woman, died this week as a result of injuries sustained when a trailer hitch was thrown at her from a passing car earlier this year. According to news reports, her sister said she heard someone in the vehicle say: "I got one." An 18-year-old man who was in the car has been charged with aggravated assault. Police have not yet said whether the charges will be upgraded following her death.
The chiefs said the tensions in Thunder Bay are affecting Indigenous students, many of whom have left their homes for schooling and need supports to keep safe. The recent string of incidents have many parents reconsidering whether to send their children to the city for school, some say.
Many First Nation communities don't have high schools, so teens have to leave their families and homes, many times alone, to attend provincial schools or schools operated by First Nation bands. Families who choose this option often send their children to board with families they don't know.
Alvin Fiddler, the Grand Chief of NAN, said on Thursday that there is an "urgency" for steps to be taken before students return in the fall. He said NAN will ask for a variety of resources from the federal and provincial governments, including more support for student programs. He said measures could include something as simple as buses to transport students to and from school because some students have said they face racism on city buses.
"We feel that the work needs to begin even before the students come back," Mr. Fiddler said in an interview. "There's an urgency now for governments to engage in a meaningful way to address not only the immediate issues, but also some of the long-standing issues we've been raising with them for a while now."
Mr. Fiddler said all parties have moved "frustratingly slow" in implementing the inquest recommendations, which included increased government funding for on- and off-reserve schools so they can provide programs and services similar to those received by non-Indigenous children. NAN plans to speak with federal and provincial government officials on Friday, Mr. Fiddler said.
"We need to do something," he said. "If we don't have a plan, if we don't do anything, we will lose more lives. That's the last thing any of us want to experience, is losing more students."
Anne Scotton, Ontario's regional director general for Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, said the government has offered more funding for boarding homes and for parents to visit their children in Thunder Bay. Still, she said the government is prepared to do more.
"I truly believe it is a crisis," Ms. Scotton told the chiefs at the meeting on Thursday.
Mr. Fiddler said the government needs to find the resources to help students attend schools closer to home. "They should not be forced to come to Thunder Bay, and they should not be denied a right to their education," he said.
Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School in Thunder Bay, run by the Northern Nishnawbe Education Council, enrolled 130 students last September. Norma Kejick, executive director of the council, said enrolment for this fall is lower. She said many parents are waiting to see what safety plans are put in place before sending their children to the school.
DFCHS will do more gang awareness and self-defense training with students during the fall orientation, Ms. Kejick said. The school also has a foot patrol at night that walks the downtown core and riverbanks responding to student emergencies.
Ms. Kejick said she is hopeful that the meeting will lead to increased safety measures.
"We have to continue working together. It's sad that it took seven deaths to get us to the table to talk. But it started and that needs to continue now," she said.