A small Ottawa high school program is trying to teach young urban aboriginal students more effectively by combining education with their cultural rituals.

Vanessa Snowboy, Ottawa Urban Aboriginal Alternate High School

Vanessa Snowboy, 17, changed schools when her guidance counsellor suggested a different program would work better for her. (CBC)

The Odawa Native Friendship Centre has run the Urban Aboriginal Alternate High School Program for a decade in partnership with the Boys and Girls Club of Ottawa and the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board.

Students have to be native — status, non-status, Métis or Inuit — between 16 and 19 years old, an Ontario resident, have at least one year of high school under their belt and have an adult to act as a mentor.

Vanessa Snowboy, 17, is a Cree from Mistissini in the James Bay region of Quebec who now lives in Ottawa.

She said she struggled in her new high school, but then a guidance counsellor recommended she transfer to the aboriginal high school.

“I wasn't really getting along with the other students because I was very quiet,” Snowboy said.

“I guess I went through a depression when I had no one to share my experiences with. So when (the counsellor) heard about the school, I agreed right away to come here.”

Growing enrolment 

There are currently 35 students enrolled in the program, which focuses on a mix of culture and curriculum. That allows students to, for example, practice powwow songs during the school day.

Celina Cada-Matasawagon runs the program with another teacher and an education counsellor. She said fewer than 10 students enrolled in the first year.

Celina Cada-Matasawagon, teacher Ottawa Urban Aboriginal Alternate High School

Celina Cada-Matasawagon is the sole teacher at the urban aboriginal program. (CBC)

Unlike other alternate high schools, Cada-Matasawagon said there are unique elements of this program for struggling urban aboriginal students.

“It offers culture. It also offers flexibility to the students,” she said.

“One of the big differences between our program and the regular high school is we have that flexibility to help the students meet the needs of where they're at.”

Students can apply to the program through an application at the Boys and Girls Club of Ottawa and have to go through an interview process before being accepted.