The organization that runs a boarding school for First Nations students in Northwestern Ontario says it needs more money to adequately provide for the teens in its care.

Pelican Falls School serves students from fly-in First Nations where there are no high schools. The students come from hundreds of kilometres away and live on site.

"Once we cover the salaries of our staff, we are left with two dollars a day to feed our students," said Norma Keejick, executive director at Northern Nishnawbe Education Council, which runs the school.

Keejick said the school receives $6,618 per student living on site. Nearly 200 students are enrolled this year. They live in small houses with a live-in house counsellor, at a ratio of 14 students for each counsellor.

Administrators constantly struggle to balance the need to support teenagers living away from home with more basic needs such as food, Keejick said.

Toilet paper a luxury

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Randall Petawanick looks forward to joining the military after he graduates from Grade 12 at Pelican Falls First Nations high school. (Jody Porter/CBC)

At the opening assembly this week, Keejick told students she listened to concerns they raised in a survey last spring, and their bathrooms will be stocked with higher-quality toilet paper.

"No more sand paper," she said, to the laughter and applause of students.

Eighteen-year-old Randall Petawanick from Weagamow is heading into his fourth and graduating year at the school, and said he enjoys coming to Pelican.

"My sister graduated here, so I thought I’d graduate here too," he said. "Getting the education, the learning, I just listen and be obedient."

Petawanick is also an athlete, playing on the school’s hockey and volleyball teams, and is considering taking up cross-country running this fall. He says he doesn’t mind the school diet, which is heavy in rice and noodles.

"It’s good," he laughed. "As long as I get to eat."

But Petawanick wasn’t always so happy to be here. He said he was homesick during the first year far away from his mom and familiar surroundings.

Students, staff battle homesickness

Keejick said the first few weeks of school are especially difficult.

"Already, yesterday, we had a student breaking down that was already homesick," she said on Wednesday. "And then it takes staff away to go and help the student and make her comfortable."

Keejick said that’s what makes support staff so essential, even if it does mean squeezing the budget for basics.

"Everybody has to always cut back, so we can ensure our students have what they need," she said. 

But, Keejick adds, it shouldn’t be this way. She said First Nations students shouldn’t have to make so many sacrifices for an education they’re forced to leave home to receive.

The Assembly of First Nations is planning a strategy session in October for chiefs to discuss ways to push the federal government to spend more on their children’s education.

The AFN said, on average, First Nations schools receive about 40 per cent less funding than their provincial counterparts.