Personal safety alarms were given out to students at Dennis Franklin Cromarty First Nations high school in Thunder Bay during a special assembly welcoming them back to a city that one student says suddenly feels more threatening.
"It’s really scary that we have to have these now," said Grade 12 student Marsha Kennedy who has just returned from winter break at home in Sandy Lake First Nation for her final semester of high school in Thunder Bay.
"My first day coming back to Thunder Bay I went to Mac’s, and it’s like a five minute walk there, and I just felt scared."
Concerns about student safety come as police investigate the abduction and sexual assault of a First Nations woman and reports that her assailants said they would attack other Aboriginal women.
Safety concerns linked to Idle No More
The school assembly on Jan. 10 also included information on the Idle No More movement and students were encouraged to learn more so they can form their own opinions and participate in their own way.
But there are concerns that the rallies and protests will make the students more visible and potentially more vulnerable in the city.
"There’s a lot of stuff going on politically … regarding treaty rights," said Thunder Bay Police Aboriginal Liaison Officer Larry Baxter during his address to the group. "I just want to encourage students to be safe out there, watch out for each other."
Before the Idle No More movement got underway, Kennedy said she felt so comfortable in Thunder Bay.
"It felt like my home ... but now, I’m not even sure I want my younger brother to come here [for school]," she said.
Still, Kennedy said it’s important to stand up for her rights and protest recent government policies and funding cuts that she feels will threaten her ability to pursue a higher education.
Safeguarding students from backlash
The First Nations-run high school is inviting Idle No More organizers into its classrooms all next week to help students better understand the issues. But there are concerns First Nations students in mainstream schools won’t have the same opportunities.
The Anishinabek Nation issued a news release on Jan. 10 asking educators to control the potential backlash against First Nations students.
"Unfortunately, discussions about First Nations rights seem to bring out the worst in some Canadians, and there have been numerous reports of racist commentary and incidents across the country," said Grand Council Chief Patrick Madahbee, speaking on behalf of 39 member Anishinabek communities in Ontario.
"We are seeking the assistance of teachers and school administrators to ensure that First Nations students entrusted to their care are not subject to any bullying or harassment."
Kennedy said there are some simple things that make her feel safer in the city.
"Like those friendly people you see that say 'hi' or smile at least and make eye contact with you," she said.