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Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School, on Nov. 20, 2019. The building that houses DFC is decades-old and the problems with its infrastructure are well-known.

David Jackson/The Globe and Mail

Ardelle Sagutcheway is an Ojibway mother who advocates for Indigenous youth.

I was just 14 years old when I left my home community of Eabametoong First Nation in 2004 to head south for school. This is standard practice in northern Ontario, which is home to 49 individual communities, but none with a high school – meaning that once Indigenous youth graduate grade 8, you’re expected to leave your families and homes to pursue a secondary education in a larger town or city with resources, like Sioux Lookout or Thunder Bay.

Countless other Indigenous youth have made that kind of emotional departure before and after me, including Robyn Harper, Jethro Anderson, Jordan Wabasse, Curran Strang, Paul Panacheese, Reggie Bushie and Kyle Morrisseau.

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I survived my time in Thunder Bay. They didn’t.

As Thunder Bay turns 50, these writers contemplate the future of a deeply flawed, but hopeful, city:

Peter Raffo: Fifty years in, the experiment of amalgamation in Thunder Bay is finally showing signs of maturity

Alvin Fiddler: Here’s how Thunder Bay’s police and Indigenous people can work together

Cheyanne Thomas and Fabienne Speiss: In Ontario, birth certificates aren’t a natural birthright – and that fact hits the North the hardest

In 2015, the province of Ontario and the Nishnawbe Aski Nation launched a joint inquest into those seven lost lives, and I joined a youth advisory committee, tasked with ensuring the youth voice was part of the process. It was a crash course into the legal system and into federal policies, but I also joined so I could better understand the issues around Indigenous education and to answer a question that haunted me: What made my experience different than the seven First Nations youth who died too soon, just because they wanted what every teenager wants – to finish school?

I would come to understand that it wasn't a coincidence, but circumstance, that put me on a different path. I became a mom the year after my family and I moved to Thunder Bay. My mindset changed; I needed to be a good mother to my daughter, and to do that, I would need an education.

I still struggled with being a new mom, housing issues, trying to stay in school. I also experienced culture shock for the first time in my life and I had no way of knowing how to deal with it. Being from a small community to suddenly living in Thunder Bay where I was left to figure things out by myself. Nothing could prepare for this new reality. I had been an angry teenager, to that point and it got worse. Nothing worried me when I was drunk – and so, I’d get drunk a lot. I became addicted to that feeling – of letting everything go and not having to worry about anything. It was a way to cope with the situation I found myself in, but not everyone was able to understand that.

But then it got me into trouble. My daughter was taken into foster care for her safety. I had to do the work of untangling what was going on in my heart and mind so I could finish school and prove I could be a good mom.

This happened to me more than 10 years ago, but it is still something that young Indigenous people struggle with today: making it through the four years of high school, away from their families and community.

The solution is complicated. One thing I am sure of is how big of a role the Canadian government plays in Indigenous education, which falls under federal jurisdiction. This means that any funds a school might need can only handed out by Ottawa. Public education such as elementary schools, secondary schools and post-secondary schools have the privilege of accessing funds through both provincial and federal governments.

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This inequality has played out in the new public elementary school being built in Thunder Bay, with a price tag of $30 million. Right next door is the asbestos-filled Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School (DFC), one of two Indigenous high schools in the city. The building that houses DFC is decades-old – it once served as an elementary school – and the problems with its infrastructure are well-known. This was something discussed during the inquest as well. But the newly renamed Indigenous Services Canada won’t do anything about it, as if addressing the issues in one school would mean they would have to address the issues in the others. And efforts to build on-campus housing for DFC students – to create a safe new community there for students from remote communities – have stalled, with the federal government arguing that enrollment has declined, but the school saying the decline is because of parents’ worries about safety.

This is not a quick-fix situation. It will take systemic change to remove the numerous barriers in place for Indigenous youth. But it starts with making sure children and youth are going to school in an environment that is safe for them. The price tag of new schools shouldn’t be an issue if we really want Indigenous youth to succeed.

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