For this Arctic student, getting to high school means 500-kilometre flight

As kids across Canada were boarding the bus and heading back to school, 16-year-old Jasmine Keogak of Sachs Harbour, N.W.T., had flown 500 kilometres south to her school.

'It's kind of like residential school,' says her mom, 'but I know that it's for their own good'

Jasmine Keogak, 16, is excited to leave her hometown for high school this fall, even if she has to travel 500 km by plane to get there. (submitted by Jasmine Keogak)

As kids across Canada were boarding the bus and heading back to school Tuesday, 16-year-old Jasmine Keogak of Sachs Harbour, N.W.T., had flown 500 kilometres south to her school.

Keogak is one of three students from Sachs Harbour, population 132, heading to Inuvik for high school this year. The tiny Arctic community on Banks Island has just one school, from kindergarten to Grade 9, and just one teacher. 

"I'm happy and excited to be out of town," she told the CBC. "There's not much to do here. There's only one store."

Sachs Harbour is one of seven communities in the Northwest Territories — the majority of which are only accessible by plane — that don't offer high school. Teenagers from Tsiigehtchic, Wekweeti, Trout Lake, Nahanni Butte, Jean Marie River and Wrigley all must travel out of their communities for high school. 

Keogak is heading into her second year of school in Inuvik, and while she can't wait for the relative bustle — Inuvik is the regional hub for the N.W.T.'s Mackenzie Delta — her mother, Donna Keogak, isn't as eager.

"It's kind of like residential school," Donna says. "It's hard, but I know that it's for their own good."

Sachs Harbour, pop. 132, was established in 1929 when three Inuit families moved there to trap, according to the N.W.T. government. (CBC)

Donna Keogak, the acting mayor of Sachs Harbour, has lived in the community her whole life, except for when she, too, went to Inuvik for school.

She attended Inuvik's notorious Catholic residential school, Grollier Hall, where many of the students were sexually and physically abused. Grollier Hall's supervisor from 1976-1979, Paul Leroux, has since been convicted of more than a dozen sexual offences.

But Donna says her experience at the school was, for the most part, positive.

"I was one of the lucky ones that had my dad travelling for our land claims, so he was in Inuvik about every other month," she says. "Some students weren't very lucky. They didn't get to contact their parents for quite a while."

Donna lived in a boarding house run by nuns and shared a room with three other girls.

"It was very difficult. It was the first time I was away from my parents. We had no phone. We didn't have communications very often."

Until the 1980s, when the federal and territorial government began investing in community schools, the majority of children in northern Canada had to leave their homes to get an education. Most of them came to the North's larger centres like Yellowknife, Inuvik, Whitehorse and Iqaluit.

Tough to stay in school

Jasmine is the youngest of six children and the last in the family to make the journey south for school.

While she'll be staying with her sister, other kids aren't as lucky. They'll board with families they may have never met before, who receive a stipend from the territorial government to help cover costs.

"Some of the other students that leave the community don't have the relatives that can give them the support they need to complete school so quite a few of them drop out," Donna says.

Last year, she says, eight students left for school in Inuvik. Only half of them finished the year. The rest went back to Sachs Harbour to look for employment, many with hopes of returning to school this year.

Too few kids to make it work

While Donna says it would be nice to have her daughter at home, she understands why she has to leave.

"The thing about it is we don't have the students to have the right teachers in our community," she said.

Donna says a number of young people in Sachs have, in the past, signed up to do distance education online, but because of spotty internet service and a lack of support, it never worked out.

And even if the territorial government were to fund a secondary school for the community, Donna would still send her kids south, where there are simply more opportunities, both for academic work and for social life.

This year, Jasmine plans to try out for her school volleyball team. In March, her art club will be travelling to San Francisco.

Three years from now, she hopes to make another big leap — this time to attend film school.

Even if she's far away, of course, her mother will be rooting for her.

"Education is the key to everything," Donna says. 

About the Author

Hilary Bird

Reporter

Hilary Bird is a reporter with CBC North in Yellowknife. She has been reporting on Indigenous issues and politics for almost a decade and has won several national awards for her work. Hilary can be reached at hilary.bird@cbc.ca