Life for school-aged youth living in the Peawanuck community in northern Ontario isn’t always easy.
The isolated, fly-in Cree community is located in the Kenora district with a population of fewer than 250. Media coverage often reports on the limited housing and social opportunities for the community, as well as high suicide rates and drug use.
To help give the Peawanuck youth a chance to obtain a high school experience comparable to most other students across the province, O’Gorman High School in Timmins, Ontario has opened its doors.
Working with the Cree band to help support the youth who volunteer to leave for Timmins, the Catholic high school welcomes the new students to the school and makes every effort to make it a smooth transition.
“These communities have limited resources and if the youth don’t get their secondary education, it can turn into a vicious cycle,” explains Northeastern District Catholic School Board’s Colleen Landers, who is also CCSTA’s Ontario Director representative. “It’s good to see the parents who had the opportunity to get an education, because they then see the value of giving their children a secondary education.”
The band coordinates the accommodation logistics and expenses while the government covers the tuition costs. Each year, about 10 students will make the trip down to Timmins, many of whom who have never left their community.
“It’s a huge culture shock for them when they first arrive,” explains O’Gorman High School Principal Ted Weltz. “And how could it not? I can’t imagine having to leave my family and all that I know and move in with strangers or distant relatives while attending a new school. But life is pretty tough up there for young kids. When they come here they have more options in what life and school can provide for them.”
To help with the transition to Timmins, O’Gorman has a youth Aboriginal liaison worker who provides cultural experiences at lunch time.
“We also have a Native studies classroom and we try to integrate their culture into school life,” says Weltz. “We encourage the students to join the clubs, so they’ll get active in the school environment.”
He adds that he’s gotten to know one of the students who joined the basketball team this year. “He’s posted some tweets that are really eye-opening and thought provoking, but he’s really become a part of the school community.”
And, Yet, not every students stays.
“The number of First Nation students fluctuate throughout the year,” explains Weltz. “Some of the students will return home because they miss their families and their life back home.”
It’s also been a learning curve for the staff.
“We try to make them more welcome, and to do so, we teach the existing high-school population and the staff about their culture,” explains Landers. “For instance, the First Nation students won’t look you straight in the face and won’t make eye contact, as it’s their culture. So the staff needed to learn about these cultural differences in order to understand and appreciate their background.”
Weltz says the staff treat the First Nation students no differently than the rest of the student body.
“I think it’s our responsibility as educators to do what is best for all our students. Even though we’re a small school of 400, we want to provide students with a positive future. If you don’t have a diploma, your options are limited. We want to help provide options for all students after high school.”
The Charter of Commitment
O’Gorman’s efforts come at a good time as the country reflects on the state of the First Nation communities across Canada. Just last year, CCSTA signed a Charter of Commitment to showcase support to provide equal educational opportunities for First Nation, Métis and Inuit communities.
“Many Canadians don’t understand the hardship the youth in these communities have in order to get an education,” says Landers. “There are no libraries and they don’t always have qualified teachers. As Canadians, we need to better understand these educational challenges happening in our own backyard.”