Just off the side of a long dirt road, Norma Kejick, the executive director of the Northern Nishnawbe Education Council (NNEC), tells me that construction along this path leading to Pelican Falls First Nations High School is happening in stages. The reason, she says, is that the Bikiiwewining Nindawaashishiiminaanak (Bringing Our Children Home) initiative led by Lac Seul First Nation in Northern Ontario has yet to start its ground search in the area. Pavement can’t be laid on the road until they know whether ground-penetrating radar will be needed. She mentions this as if this is normal.
I tell her that I can think of no school in Canada that has to worry about discovering the bodies of former students in the yard.
But here we are.
This high school used to be the Pelican Falls Indian Residential School, run by the Anglican Church and funded by the federal government from 1927 to 1978. The school site was originally selected by Frank Edwards, the local Indian Agent. That main school building has been demolished but the high school operates in its place – and today, First Nations youth from Northern Ontario, many of them from the more than 20 remote reserves, travel hundreds of kilometres to learn there. You see, if they want access to a high school education, they have no choice but to leave their families and communities to come south to Pelican.
The church’s influence might be gone, but Canada’s thumb on First Nations education has not disappeared.
I’m visiting the school on the day the students return from their October break. One of the recommendations that came from the 2016 inquest into the deaths of seven students in Thunder Bay – six of whom attended another NNEC-run school, Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School – was to let the kids go home for one week in October so they could participate in the fall hunt. Afterward, they come back on small planes, these children and grandchildren of people who attended Pelican or another Indian Residential School.
There is a lot of demand for the education that Pelican High offers. There are 13 townhouses that are used as dorms for the children; the youngest student they ever had was 11. These dorms are packed: The kids are housed four to a room, sometimes six. Ms. Kejick tells me that the rooms are so crammed, there’s no room for drawers for the kids to put their clothes and personal belongings away. There are only two bathrooms to each house. One of the school buildings, which used to be the school’s kindergarten when the Anglicans ran the school, had to be converted into a girls dorm.
Each house has a supervisor and a kitchen so the meals can be made, because there isn’t a cafeteria with a kitchen big enough to cook for all the students. She tells me that in one house, only one burner on the stove works and three hot plates are used to help make meals.
But this year, Pelican is unable to operate to capacity. They are down six teachers, Ms. Kejick tells me, because there is no housing for them in Sioux Lookout – meaning children in Northern Ontario who should be in high school are staying at home. She doesn’t know exactly how many; they do not have an accurate count. But she notes that “on site, we can house 182 kids, and there are 145 on site right now.”
This is hardly the first time that Pelican has had to cap its enrolment because of a lack of teachers. “Our biggest problem here is housing,” Ms. Kejick says. “I just had a home counsellor resign because there is nowhere to live. We need staff.”
A confluence of northern problems has compounded at Pelican: a shortage of housing in Sioux Lookout and skyrocketing building costs have been made worse by the fact that everything is more expensive in the north, from groceries to gasoline. Pelican’s roof, boiler system, plumbing and road are also currently under repair, thanks to nearly $10-million provided from the federal government to the Ontario government, and was then passed to Pelican.
But in truth, until the grounds are searched, until Canada and Ontario agree to come together and fund a new proper school with a cafeteria and real residences, until private investors consider an act of true corporate reconciliation, or – and here’s a thought – until high schools are built in First Nations northern communities so kids don’t have to leave home, nothing will change. Until then, Canada is just putting “lipstick on a pig,” Ms. Kejick says.
Today’s Pelican students are forced to live in the literal legacy of residential schools. The status quo simply isn’t good enough.