There's a new solution for kids from one northwestern Ontario First Nation who were spending more time in transit than in school.
Kiizhik School — an Anishinaabe immersion school in Kenora — is setting up a satellite campus at Northwest Angle 33 First Nation, a small community on Lake of the Woods that hasn't had a school of its own for about 20 years.
Students there used to travel for hours across the lake by boat, or winter ice road, crossing an international border to attend the closest school in Warroad, Minnesota.
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"They're on a boat at five in the morning... they're in school all day, they're back at 7 p.m. and they start all over again," said Andy Graham, the education director at Bimose Tribal Council, which runs the Kiizhick School. "It's very dangerous, especially in winter road conditions."
There's also about a four week period each year, during the time the ice is forming on the lake in fall and when it is breaking up in spring, when students could not travel at all and were therefore unable to attend school, Graham said.
"It hit a heart string for us and at the same time, it is a great opportunity to take our phenomenal programming into the community," he said.
Kiizhik School launched in Kenora in 2015 to immerse Anishinaabe students in their language, culture and traditions and since its opening has increased enrolment from 19 elementary students to 60, taught by an entirely Indigenous staff.
'Demand from grandparents'
"We see a lot demand from grandparents, telling parents they want the children to have that experience with the culture," Graham said.
According to Canadian government statistics, fewer than half of the 466 registered members of Northwest Angle 33 live on the isolated reserve. There are hopes that the school will help others make that choice.
"We've lost so many families because they've had to move where their children can attend school," said Northwest Angle 33 Elder Josephine Sandy in a news release. "Having our own school and finally being able to raise our children here will be life-changing for us."
The Bimose Tribal Council also runs an alternative high school in Kenora and its services will also be extended to Northwest Angle 33.
Currently there are 15 students taking classes in the community centre at Northwest Angle through an agreement with Bimose and the Kiizhik School, Graham said. The First Nation has hired two local educational assistants and a nutritionist to work with the students.
And there are plans for a proper school, attached to a new band office, and more full-time staff to work with the students in the fall.
"It's so exciting because you're seeing the whole community really engaged, it's a whole community effort," Graham said.