Seven First Nations teenagers from a high school in Thunder Bay that teaches students from fly-in reserves are in Ottawa to ask for a residence that would ease the loneliness of being far from home and improve their safety in a city where other Indigenous teens have died.
The proposed residence would be on a separate property from the school and would be very different from the historic residential schools that had such tragic consequences for Canada’s Indigenous population. Those church-run institutions were created, in the words of Sir John A. Macdonald, to “take the Indian out of the child.”
The Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School (DFC), which takes students from 20 reserves across northwestern Ontario, has the aim of students graduating with pride in their Indigenous culture and identity.
“I have learned more about my culture [at school] than I ever did at home,” Alaina Shakchekapo said. And, unlike the old residential schools, which Indigenous children were forced to attend even over the objections of their parents, she said, “it’s our decision to come, our families let us leave.”
It not always an easy choice. Boarding alone with a family of a different culture can be an isolating experience for an Indigenous teenager. Sometimes they are expected to keep mostly to themselves.
Ms. Shakchekapo , a 17-year-old from the Weagamow First Nation, which is closer to Hudson Bay than Thunder Bay, has boarded with 13 different families in the four years she has attended DFC. Some of her boarding parents could no longer care for her and some of them just didn’t want her anymore, she said.
And some of the homes were a two-hour bus ride from the school − each way. “Buses are not the best,” Ms. Shakchekapo says. ”It’s like, ’Am I going to get stuck sitting next to somebody that might try to hurt me.’ ”
Six teens who attended DFC between 2001 and 2011 died under tragic and sometimes mysterious circumstances. Last year, the bodies of two other Indigenous teenagers were pulled from Thunder Bay’s rivers.
In 2016, after an inquest into the deaths of the six DFC students and that of another Indigenous teen, the jury called on the federal government to provide the money to build, maintain and staff a residence for the teenagers who attend the high school.
Greg Chomut, a teacher who is accompanying the students on their Ottawa trip, said safety is a top priority of the school. But it is something that is difficult to ensure around the clock when the school’s 80 students are dispersed in boarding homes around the city.
And not all homes are the types of places that should take students, Mr. Chomut said. As a result, he said, “we take a lot fewer students than we can manage, and that puts students on wait lists to go to high school.”
So Ms. Shakchekapo and her fellow students are in Ottawa this week to press the case for the residence. They are meeting with senators and MPs and they have letters for Jane Philpott, the Minister of Indigenous Services, urging her to make their dream a reality.
The trip was prompted by Mr. Chomut’s civics class, where the students were assigned earlier this year to write to Lynn Beyak, a senator who spoken several times about the positive aspects of residential schools. The students challenged those views in their letters and explained what their parents and grandparents had experienced at the schools where thousands of children died and many more were physically and sexually abused.
The letters were handed to independent senator Kim Pate when she visited Thunder Bay in January. At the same time, the students told Ms. Pate about their need for a residence.
Ms. Pate urged them to write letters to Dr. Philpott, promising to give them to the minister.
The students wrote the letters. But they decided to visit Ottawa to see that they were hand delivered.
Dr. Philpott told the Senate last month that she has discussed the residence with First Nations leaders and “we are making good progress … we have recognized the necessity.”
But there is no shovel in the ground. And the students who will leave their homes on reserves in September to attend high school in Thunder Bay will still have to board with strangers.
Megan Johnup, who is also in Grade 12 at DFC, is among the seven who have travelled to Ottawa. Ms. Johnup says she generally stays at school until the doors close at 8 p.m. every night – or longer if there is someone who will supervise her. She would rather be at the school than at the home where she boards.
“A residence would be better because then all of the students would be in one area,” she said. “And a residence would be safer.”