Thunder Bay

Neighbours present petition against boarding school

The plan to open a public boarding school in Dryden, Ont., for First Nations students to prepare for high school has run into more opposition from neighbouring residents concerned about their safety and property values.
Dryden's city council meeting on Tuesday night was packed, as hundreds of residents petitioned against a proposed First Nations boarding school. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

The plan to open a boarding school in Dryden for First Nations students to prepare for high school has run into more opposition.

Members of the public had an opportunity Tuesday night to give their input to Dryden city council, which is considering whether to approve a zoning amendment to allow the conversion of the former Pinewood Public School.

Local elder Louis Simard says stereotypes underlie neighbours' opposition to the school. Nicole Ireland/CBC

The gallery was packed. Several neighbours who want to stop the project brought a petition to the meeting.

"I don't feel safe in my house, and I think a person has a right to do that," said Marilyn Titze, who lives next to the proposed site. Residents say they are concerned about having so many teens living away from their parents without enough supervision.

The petition says the boarding school, which would take students entering Grade 9 and give them individualized attention to help them prepare academically and socially for secondary school, would also drive down property values.

"That's not fair," Titze said.

The city clerk's office said 586 people signed the petition.

Stereotyping

Local elder Louis Simard, who's in his early 70's,  said he believes stereotypes lie behind that kind of opposition. "I would ask that they open their hearts to those kids and give them a chance," Simard said.

25-year-old Dryden resident Adam Riley agreed — and said he's frustrated by the "not in my backyard" mentality.

The plan

  • Convert the former Pinewood Public School in Dryden. One wing will become a dormitory for students and the other will be for classrooms.
  • The transitional school would work very closely with nearby Dryden High School. 
  • Each student would get individually-tailored help preparing for high school.
  • Extra-curriculars will be emphasized to help the teens adjust, with sports and activities at the local Friendship Centre playing a big role.
  • It's hoped that adults from some students' communities will work at the transition school to help foster a sense of home.

"Whenever I hear stuff like this I want to bash my head into the wall," he said. "This school is going to get these students on to the track so that they can go into high school. They won't fall behind, they'll be on the same page and they'll be able to move through the school ranks, graduate — potentially with honours."

Dryden is a hub of northwestern Ontario, Riley said, and the city needs to step up and give First Nations students the same opportunity to get a high school education as every other kid.

First Nations students countrywide are discriminated against in terms of school funding, according to several analyses. The typical on-reserve aboriginal school gets $2,000 to $3,000 less per pupil than schools in non-native districts, a discrepancy the House of Commons voted earlier this year to rectify.

Jack McMaster, education director at the Keewatin-Patricia District school board, which is working with a First Nations council to establish the new transitional school, said students from remote communities are, on average, two or three years behind academically.

"And any student who walks in the front door of a high school in Grade 9 — and is two to three years behind — generally doesn't last very long in the school," McMaster said earlier this month.

For the aboriginal preparatory school to go ahead, Dryden council must approve a zoning amendment to allow construction of the dormitory in one wing of the building. The other wing would be used for classes.

Councillors said they'll make a decision in June or July.

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