Leaving home: Northern students flock south in pursuit of higher education

Fall is a time of migration in the North. It's especially true for young people leaving home to study in Southern Canada for the first time. CBC's Trailbreaker caught up with a few of them as they started settling in.

CBC's Trailbreaker spent the week checking in with students who've moved south for school

Samantha McDonald, left, and K'a Nakehk'o, right, are both first-year students living away from home for the first time. They say they're excited for their new challenges. (Submitted by Samantha McDonald and K'a Nakehk'o)

Fall is a time of change in the North, perhaps most so for the families affected by the great migration south as students leave in pursuit of higher education.

CBC's The Trailbreaker spent the week checking in with first-year students who have moved away from home for the first time, in order to get a sense of how they're dealing with that watershed moment in their lives.

K'a Nakehk'o was settling into his new dorm at Mount Royal University in Calgary when host Loren McGinnis caught up with him. He said the gravity of the changes in his life started to hit him after his parents dropped him off downtown to shop for furniture for his dorm before heading back up to Yellowknife.

"At first, on my drive down here, I was feeling very anxious and excited," he said. "Anxious because I'm not seeing my parents, my family, my friends for quite a long time and leaving the comfort of home.

"But now that I'm actually settled into my dorm, I checked out campus and everything, I'm getting a lay of the land and the city [and] I'm feeling more calm about it. It's still a little bittersweet that my parents are not around anymore. I have to cook my own meals."

I was sad, but at the same time I was also really excited.​​​​​- Samantha McDonald

Samantha McDonald should know a thing or two about cooking her own meals. The 17-year-old from Inuvik has been working alongside her parents Pam and Brian at Alestine's restaurant in Inuvik for more than four years.

Now, she's settling into campus life at the University of Alberta's Augustana campus in Camrose, Alberta. 

"It was sad [to leave Inuvik] … but it was also so exciting," she said. "To get to live somewhere new, to get to know new people. It was kind of mixed, I was sad but at the same time I was also really excited."

The youngest of three siblings, Samantha is also the last to leave home. Her parents are also going through a major life adjustment right now, and it is affecting them deeply.

Samantha McDonald's parents Brian and Pam celebrate her graduation at East Three Secondary School in Inuvik. Samantha is the youngest sibling, and last to leave home. (Submitted by Pam McDonald)

"It's quiet — it's very quiet," said Pamela. "It's still a huge adjustment because they have to move on and you can't hold them here.

"You know they need to go. And our other two have already gone and prospered and finished their degrees so it was her turn."

Brian told CBC News he put on a brave face when his daughter called with second thoughts about the move in her first days away, telling her she had to stick it out for at least a few weeks and make an effort to get involved in her new community.

Meanwhile, he has gone through his own struggle to adjust. The day they dropped Samantha off at the airport, they decided not to open the restaurant.

"We just couldn't to it … emotionally, I guess," he said. "I want them to do that — I want them to get outside [Inuvik] and experience that. They've been here all their lives, and I've been here all my life too. We're adjusting.

"We're settling down, we're adapting, and we're counting down the days until we leave [to go visit]."

Birds of a feather

In Calgary, Nakehk'o is living in an apartment-style dorm with three friends and fellow grads of Yellowknife's Sir John Franklin High School. They have a shared kitchen, with four bedrooms and two bathrooms.

Having familiar faces around him makes the transition a lot easier, he said. 

"I think that's part of the reason why I feel so comfortable at the moment."

Samantha's roommate also coincidentally used to be her classmate at East Three Secondary School in Inuvik, before she moved out of town a couple years ago. Her older brother also lives in Camrose and is offering her support settling in.

"It's really made me feel more comfortable being here, that I knew someone." 

K'a Nakehk'o is sharing an apartment-style dorm with friends from Yellowknife. He's excited and ready to try this new experience. (Submitted by K'a Nakehk'o)

'Challenge your life'

Antoine Mountain is not leaving home for the first time, but he is experiencing what it is like to be a northerner down south pursuing an education.

Mountain is a Dene artist who holds a bachelor's degree, a master's degree, and is now going into his fifth year in a PhD program in Indigenous studies at Trent University in Ontario.

"There's always that sense of loneliness because most of our students from the North who represent our Indigenous population come from smaller communities," he said.

"You're basically leaving a home-type environment where everyone shares whatever they have as part of our Dene lifestyle, and you're going to the big city among strangers."

His grandfather Peter Mountain Sr. instilled in him his passion for learning and education. Among the lessons his grandfather taught him was that, the more you need, the further away you need to go.

"I want to show to the youth it is possible, as long as you put everything you have into what you're doing at any particular moment," he said, adding he was born out on the land and, if he can do it, other northerners can too.

This ties into another Dene teaching.

"Challenge your life," he said. "Put the most difficult part in your life in front of you all the time. Do the hardest part that is possible now, while you're still able to do it."

Antoine Mountain holds a bachelor's degree, a master's degree and is now into his fifth year in a PhD program in Indigenous studies. (David Stewart and Nathalie Heiberg-­Harrison)

Written by Laura Busch, based on interviews by Loren McGinnis


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