First Nations students in Thunder Bay, Ont., are learning the skills they say they need to serve their remote communities at a new trade school that officially opened on Thursday.
"It'll be really useful because we don't really have a mechanic back in our reserve, so if I learn a lot of stuff, I can help them out over there," Soda Kakegamic said of the skills he's learning in the automotive shop.
"I can get my own job. I can make my own department, automobile department" at home in Keewaywin First Nation, the 20-year-old student said.
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Teachers, education officials and chiefs have pushed for years to open a trade school within Dennis Franklin Cromarty First Nations high school, but were challenged by the funding constraints and jurisdictional dilemmas created by running a federally-funded school outside of a First Nation.
The province of Ontario provided $500,000 to refurbish an automotive classroom, a state-of-the-art manufacturing technology shop and a new kitchen for a hospitality and tourism class to launch phase one of the trade school.
Severn Stoney, 18, greeted guests in the shiny new kitchen, where tables were spread with fancy fruit and vegetable trays that she helped prepare.
"I never really cook at home, so I think I'll be able to cook more," Stoney said about the food preparation skills she's now learning at school.
"Maybe, in the future, I think I could be a chef or maybe start with something a bit smaller though, like an assistant," she said.
Speeches during the opening ceremonies featured many words of encouragement for the students.
"Not everyone is destined for college or university," said Norma Kejick, the executive director of the Northern Nishnawbe Education Council, that runs the school. "There's no reason you can't start your own hair dressing business; start your own mechanic shop; open your own bakery.
"Dream big. Take these trades home and start your own businesses," she said.
The chair of the education council, Chris Kakegamic said he's excited to see the school filling a gap in skills in the First Nations the students call home.
There are no high schools in the remote communities, so teens must travel to Thunder Bay for high school, but they're wanted and needed back home after they graduate, Kakegamic said.
"How many times a year do we fly in contractors to do work in our communities?" he said. "We have always said, 'why can't we train our own? Why don't we have plumbers and mechanics in our communities?"
Hands-on and trades oriented classes always fill up fast at the school, said Ken Liddicoat, the trade school coordinator.
"We're facilitating dreams here," he said as he showed off the high-tech manufacturing shop.
Many students dream of returning home with valuable new experiences.
"Even if you're not going into a trade, the things we learn here are very important," said 18-year-old student Keelan Meekis. "We can bring them back to our communities and back to our people."