Toronto

This Grade 12 student is using her auto class to refurbish bikes for Attawapiskat

Delia D'Aguanno thought she wanted to pursue a career in teaching after high school, but an eye-opening visit to a First Nations reserve in Northern Ontario has inspired her to take a different path, one she says she might never have considered if her knowledge of Indigenous communities was limited to textbooks. 

'It's shown me a new passion that I have,' says Delia D'Aguanno, who plans to pursue Indigenous Studies

Delia D'Aguanno is leading the program alongside her teacher. In a couple of weeks, the bikes will be loaded up on a plane and sent to the community. (Talia Ricci/CBC)

Delia D'Aguanno thought she wanted to pursue a career in teaching after high school, but an eye-opening visit to a First Nations reserve in Northern Ontario has inspired her to take a different path, one she says she might never have considered if her knowledge of Indigenous communities was limited to textbooks. 

The Grade 12 student at St. Elizabeth Catholic High School in Thornhill, Ont. first had a chance to connect with students in Attawapiskat a few years ago, after learning about a spate of suicides among young people in that community.

At the height of the crisis, the community of 2,000 declared a state of emergency in 2016 with over 100 people trying to take their lives in the span of less than six months. The youngest among them was 11, the oldest 71. 

As part of an initiative started by her auto teacher to help promote mental health through physical activity and dance programs, Daniel Romano, D'Aguanno travelled to the community over 1000 kilometres from Toronto and struck up friendships that she says were life-changing. 

"I didn't really learn the details of what's going on reserves especially ones so close to home," she said — that is, until she visited firsthand. 

'It's shown me a new passion'

But once there, she says she came "best friends" with many of the students and keeping up contact with them over social media after the visits. 

And while there, she noticed that almost every child got around on bicycles, often ones that were very rundown.

This isn't your average high school transportation course. Between fixing car engines and changing tires, students are also tuning up dozens of kids' bikes. (Talia Ricci/CBC)

So when she found herself in an auto class, she decided to spearhead a program to send bicycles to the community and turn it into a learning experience for her classmates and the students on the reserve. 

Shipping bikes such a long distance was going to be expensive.

So D'Aguanno along with her teacher, Romano, came up with the idea to reburbish the bikes, disassemble them and send them along with mini-toolkits and instructions, so that the students in Attawapiskat could learn to put bikes together as well.

Within just two weeks since the start of the program, D'Aguanno and her fellow students have collected close to 25 bicycles and expect to have 35 more over the next few weeks.

"It's shown me a new passion that I have," said D'Aguanno, who now plans to pursue Indigenous Studies in university. 

For Romano, who first visited a reserve at age 35 a few years ago, it's been heartwarming to see students like D'Aguanno take an interest in something he says he only really began to learn about as an adult.

"We see the results of bringing kids from Toronto to the north, and the long-term friendships it's created are really true steps to reconciliation. So this is really close to our heart."

This group of students at St. Elizabeth Catholic High School are forming life-long friendships with students in Attawapiskat. (Submitted)