Every Wednesday, after her day job teaching inmates of a Northern Ontario prison, Michelle Durant-Dudley climbed into her silver Subaru and drove 70 kilometres along a winding highway that was more dense with moose traffic than cars.
Waiting for her on a tiny reserve halfway between Lake Huron and James Bay was a group of mothers, fathers, grandparents, pregnant teens and residential school survivors who shared a piece of unfinished business: their high-school diplomas.
Ms. Durant-Dudley started those Wednesday drives in 2009. Since then, thanks to her efforts and the opening of a nearby mine, residents of Wahgoshig First Nation have been breaking out of the cycle of poverty and poor education that blights many aboriginal communities.
Close to $3-billion began streaming into the area around Wahgoshig in 2010, with the construction of a gold mine and a cluster of dams along the lower Mattagami River opening up hundreds jobs, some of which paid $29 an hour. But for many locals, the requirement of a Grade 12 education put those jobs out of reach.
Ms. Durant-Dudley, driven by a personal mission to improve the quality life on reserves, started making her 70-kilometre journeys there as a volunteer, armed with just $250 to cover photocopies. The drive from her job at Monteith Correctional Complex was considered so treacherous the local school district discouraged her from making it. But Ms. Durant-Dudley isn't your average teacher. She held her first teaching job at 8 years old. She survived a schoolyard stoning by a class of preteen girls. She's a black belt. And in her 11 years teaching at the local prison, she'd seen a lot of human potential go to waste. She wanted it to stop.
In the more than two years since she began, her program has produced more than 40 graduates, and she has been hired full time to help residents of the Wahgoshig and Taykwa Tagamou reserves earn their high-school diplomas. The success of her volunteer venture prompted band leaders last year to hand her nearly $400,000 – a small slice of early revenue from the dams – to teach the 70 students enrolled in this school year's program. After her own salary, those of her administrative support staff, the costs of a minor classroom renovation and supplies, she expects to finish the school year with a small surplus.
Her goal was simple: to ensure that first nations people had the credentials they needed to take full advantage of the emerging job opportunities, rather than being relegated to the back rooms. "It's like being in a candy store, but you can't touch anything," she said. "They see these great jobs, but they're stuck in housekeeping."
The program has been so successful, another group of bands has already promised her $700,000 to bring the program to their area for the next two years, and she is hoping to hire a second teacher for next fall.
"This program is snowballing, other first nations want it," said Cheryl Tremblay, one of Ms. Durant-Dudley's first graduates, who now works as an employment and training counsellor for Wahgoshig First Nation. "But we don't have enough teachers that understand the first nations culture and values. It's going to take some unique people to keep this program going."
When Ms. Durant-Dudley began teaching at 8, it was at a school for the deaf in Lagos, Nigeria. Once a week, using only miming gestures, she taught girls her own age and younger to sew stuffed animals.
Both her parents were teachers, and her father worked in international development, training teachers in impoverished countries. They taught their children that public service wasn't something that happened on the weekends, it was a calling.
"When you're working with people that other people would walk away from, there's opportunity galore," she said.
As a young teacher who'd been pink-slipped from the local school board, she went to work on a reserve school north of Timmins, Ont. In her first year she was stoned by a group of 12-year-olds as she exited the school building late one evening, and picked up and thrown across the room by a 14-year-old girl in class.
"My pride was mortally wounded, my body was just sore and bruised," said the now second-degree karate black belt.
But the attacks fuelled her resolve. The issue of crime and poverty on reserves became personal, and first nations education became her own nagging piece of unfinished business.
Donny Sutherland was crashing at his cousin's house, collecting employment insurance, when he heard about Ms. Durant-Dudley's program. Like many of his friends, the 29-year-old been lured away from school by a job in forestry that didn't last.
With some encouragement from Howard Archibald, a school board trustee who helped get Ms. Durant-Dudley hired, Mr. Sutherland enrolled in her class. He graduated in the summer of 2010, and took a certificate course in drilling and blasting that had always been out of reach.
He now works on the dam project on the lower Mattagami, and earned more than $60,000 this year. He says the money's great, but the best part is the potential for growth and promotion.
"Now I've got my foot in the door and I'm all over the site learning everything I can," he said. "I wanted a better life, and that's what I got."
It's a sentiment that continues to motivate Ms. Durant-Dudley when she's logging hours in her Subaru, commuting back and forth between the reserves. The back seats are folded down, with lesson plans and assignments piled on top. (Her husband complains that there's no room for groceries.)
"I think that everything bad and good that happened to me there has propelled what I do now," she said. "I'll know I will have succeeded when I'm replaced by an aboriginal secondary schoolteacher."