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New school opens in Pikangikum First Nation nearly a decade after old one burned down

Kids in a remote First Nation in northern Ontario are attending classes in a proper school building for the first time in nearly a decade.

Remote community's only school burned down in 2007, students learning in portables since then

Lily Kejick, 16, says learning to play a traditional hand drum gives her courage to share songs with her community. (Jody Porter/CBC)
The Minister of Indigenous Affairs was in Pikangikum earlier this week for the opening of a brand new school in that community. We'll find out more of the minister's thoughts on First Nation education. 5:09

Kids in a remote First Nation in northern Ontario are attending classes in a proper school building for the first time in nearly a decade.

The Minister of Indigenous Affairs visited the Eenchokay Birchstick, kindergarten to Grade 12 school, in Pikangikum First Nation on Wednesday.

The community's previous school burned down in 2007. Since then, the approximately 900 school-aged children in Pikangikum were attending classes in a series of portables.

"It's really fun being in the new school after being in portables," said Lily Kejick, 16. "It's just really hard being in portables, but since we're in the new school, everything is going great. It's so awesome."

About 900 students attend classes at the new school in Pikangikum First Nation, from junior kindergarten to Grade 12. (Jody Porter/CBC)
The Grade 10 student says gym and music are her favourite classes and she'd like to become a music teacher after she graduates.

Kejick also takes part in a special program at the school called Project Journey. It's funded by the federal government and supported by Pikangikum First Nation and the Ontario Provincial Police to provide youth in the community with cultural activities such as canoeing, drumming and hunting.

Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett begins a tour of Pikangilkum's new school in the two-storey foyer, featuring an eagle floor mural. (Jody Porter/CBC)
"I really wanted to help out my community and it just brings happiness to me to see other people getting together," Kejick said.

Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett praised Project Journey and said she wants to focus federal investments in community-based, on-the-land education.

"You learn physics by trying to get your canoe to go ahead in the wind; you learn chemistry by using the chemicals in the brain to tan the deer hide; you learn biology by cleaning a fish — these are real teachings," Bennett said.

Words of inspiration are spelled out in English and Ojibway syllabics throughout the school. (Jody Porter/CBC)
Bennett acknowledges that the per student, per year funding for First Nations students falls short of what some provinces spend, but she said change must be about more than dollars and cents.

She told First Nations leaders in northern Ontario that she wants to "decolonize" education and encouraged them to come up with their own systems of education, what she called an "Indigenous pedagogy."