Two international aid agencies are stepping up to improve First Nations education in northwestern Ontario by helping create an Aboriginal trade school in Thunder Bay.
Currently 70 per cent of First Nations students on reserve don’t complete high school. Chiefs and educators hope the option of a trades-oriented education will give them the motivation they need to get a diploma.
"That will be another lifeline for our young people," Nishnawbe Aski Nation Deputy Grand Chief Goyce Kakegamic said. "[Students will say] ‘there is hope, I can work as a brick layer or work in the mining sector'."
But federal funding for First Nations education has been capped for years, so Kakegamic brought together a planning group of about 30 people last week to discuss a different way of financing a trade school.
"You see [the federal ministry of] Aboriginal Affairs isn’t here," Kakegamic said at the Nov. 16 meeting. "We need to think outside the box."
‘Shameful’ state of things
The group includes representatives from mining companies, a bank, Confederation College, Wasaya Airways, the provincial government, the municipal association, as well as the aid agencies.
"It’s shameful, the state of things," said Norm Grey-Noble, the president of Schools for Children of the World (SCW), Canada.
The agency has built schools in Honduras and Haiti. Grey-Noble said SCW wants to do more in this country, and have been looking for the appropriate opportunity.
"People in our organization are so much more aware of the incredible need for improving the educational opportunities for First Nations people," he said.
HopeLink International, a non-profit Christian, humanitarian agency is also involved. The group is currently building an Aboriginal training facility at the old Quetico Centre for people who have finished high school.
But president Bob Simpson said he’s also keen to help students finish Grade 12.
Right now the idea is to run the trades school out of Dennis Franklin Cromarty First Nations High School. Those involved say there are lots of details to be worked out, but it’s possible to have it running, on a small scale, by next fall.
'It's gonna happen'
Ottawa-based philanthropist Dave Smith is among the most optimistic about the project.
"Not everyone is going to be a lawyer or a doctor," Smith said. "So, you know, if we had a shop here, several shops here for these young people to see where their talent lies, it would be a blessing, a real blessing," he said.
Smith runs three youth treatment centres and helped save a vocational school in Ottawa. The businessman said finding the money for an Aboriginal Trade School shouldn’t be a problem. Smith’s biography says he has raised more than $150 million for charitable causes.
"Now that they’ve got me triggered, it’s gonna happen," he chuckled.