Troubled First Nation school's TV course aims to spark interest in education

Mustang TV is giving a voice to First Nations high school students at Mistassiniy School in Wabasca, Alta., and encouraging them to pursue an education.

Mustang TV giving a voice to high school students from northern reserve

TV class at troubled First Nations school aims to boost students' interest in education. 6:38

Cousins Raynelle and Destiny Cardinal sit nervously on stools, wide-eyed as students around them sound off.

"Roll sound, roll cameras."

Raynelle’s leg twitches rapidly, fuelled by adrenaline as another student holds a clapboard in front of her face.

"Mustang TV, episode 4, take one. Action."

On cue, Raynelle delivers a gush of words, reading from a teleprompter in front of her. It’s far from polished, but it's a breakthrough for the shy Grade 7 student. She’s never been on TV before and had to confront a lot of fear to be here.

Cousins Raynelle and Destiny Cardinal co-host on their first episode of Mustang TV. The Grade 7 students are painfully shy, but working in front of the camera helps them build self-confidence. (CBC)

And that’s one of the things Mustang TV is for – getting students to challenge themselves. It’s also giving a voice to kids, many of whom have never seen beyond the boundaries of their northern reserve.

Mustang TV originates from Mistassiniy School in Wabasca, Alta. The community is the last stop on a long highway, a four hour drive north of Edmonton.

The Woodland Cree have lived here for centuries, largely isolated until the oil and gas industry moved in. Today drugs, gangs and an overall malaise infect the area, and Mistassiniy School is in the thick of it.

Mistassiniy's challenge

The high school has the distinction of placing last in the Fraser Institute’s Alberta school rankings, year after year, showing no sign of improvement. Test scores and graduation rates are abysmal. 

A total of 350 students are registered this year, but on any given day fewer than half may show up.  Teachers say they have never seen some of the students who are signed up for their classes. Many who do show up have little interest in what the school is trying to teach.

Most of the students are from the Bigstone Cree First Nation, a sprawling collection of six reserves that cover a landmass about a third the size of metro Toronto. 

Educators have to deal with vast distances, both geographic and cultural, to get students to come to class. Those in the most far flung reaches of the reserve spend about two hours a day on a bus getting to and from the school. 

At home, educators say, there is often little encouragement to attend classes, as some parents place little value on education.

"Drugs and alcohol are a big issue and it really affects kids," explains Mistassiniy principal Dafydd Thomas. "Kids that don’t have a home to go to."

He came to Wabasca as a teacher four years ago seeking adventure in a frontier community. 

"I didn’t realize what I was getting into when I got up here. I had this sort of romantic view about the frontier and I had pretty strong view about what is here, and one of the things that really surprised me was the depth of the culture."

Since his arrival, Thomas has learned to speak the Cree language. He seeks advice from native elders and goes to the homes of students to try to find out why they haven’t been in class.

"Good people" he says, "but you can tell many of them are struggling."

One of the greatest struggles facing the community right now is gangs.

Boredom and the isolation of the reserve contribute to the problem, says Lester George. He heads up the community's gang and crime reduction initiative.

"Once you have idle time and idle minds it produces sometimes bad thoughts and bad actions," George says. 

The Alberta Warriors, Native Mafia and a couple of smaller groups fight for control of the drug trade, as well as the hearts and minds of many of the youth. The 12-member RCMP detachment answers 15 to 20 calls per day, and has investigated gang-related murders in each of the past two years. One of the victims was a student at Mistassiniy School.

"I can see why gangs would be a way for a lot of our young kids - they want to make money, they want to have the good things in life, but they don’t have the same opportunities that many other kids do," says Thomas.

Gang life can be attractive to young people who lack a proper education and parental support, George adds. "In some cases it’s the only role model they see and know and want to emulate, and it’s what they want to be."

Wow factor

When he took over as principal at Mistassiniy last year, Thomas saw opportunity in Benjamin Stevens, who had arrived in Wabasca a year earlier to work as a teacher. Back in Nova Scotia Stevens had worked in another business: television — as a cameraman, producer and director.

Stevens had wanted to direct a television class at the school from the time he arrived. He was convinced that the "wow factor" of television would entice students to show up for school.

"Once they’re here then we can work with that," he says. "But it’s hard to get them out of the home or whatever it is that they’re doing when they’re not in school." 

The show took the name of the school sports team, The Mustangs. When it debuted in September, ambitions and expectations had swelled far beyond being a vehicle to bring kids into the school. Mistassiniy and the school board, Northland School Division No. 61, invested heavily in the program, purchasing professional broadcast equipment including lights, microphones, editing gear and HD cameras.

"When I talk about a TV show in school, people don’t understand," explains Stevens. "We’re also doing preproduction, scheduling, planning, we’re going into full production with HD gear and Sennheiser wireless lavaliere microphones, and they’re learning to use that and adjust sound levels. And they’re using a production slate and they’re doing the scenes, and they’re doing all the director calls themselves."

"I thought, 'Oh I want to be on there,'" recalls 13-year-old Alysis Crawford after seeing his first episode. "I’m going to be one of the hosts, because I volunteered myself — that’s what I want to do.

"It’s good to be at school," he adds. "With my family and stuff, I just don’t really come from a good family and I’m just trying to make something of my life."

Both Stevens and the principal think Mustang TV will be a catalyst that changes the school and the community for the better.

For Stevens it’s about getting kids to dream big. For Thomas the show is an opportunity for parents and the larger community to see the school doing something extraordinary.

"Mustang TV, it answers a lot of our problems," he says. "One, we need something to build a sense of identity. We need the kids to tell their story. Stories that are valuable to them."  

The show follows a TV news format with two hosts in front of a chroma key green-screen that allows for different backgrounds to be superimposed. There are different segments, including interviews with students, teachers and local celebrities. Episodes are posted on YouTube for viewing by the public, and shown at school assemblies. 

In each of the first three episodes there has been a strong anti-gang message as well.

Stevens teaches three classes, Grades 7, 8 and 9, and each contribute to the show. In his classroom, teamwork is emphasized. He tells students that if they skip class they’re letting down the rest of the team, because everyone has a job to do on a production.

"I want to set the kids up for success and I don’t always feel that they’ve had a vision to follow."

It’s still early, but if the enthusiasm students show for Mustang TV is any gauge, the program is a success.

Raynelle Cardinal is a new member of the Mustang team. When she saw episodes shot earlier in the school year she thought they were cool and that the course would be interesting and fun. Although her debut as host was somewhat nerve wracking she says it's her favourite class and she’s having fun doing things she’s never done before. And she’s dreaming big, thinking about hosting her own TV show after graduating, and travelling to new places.

Destiny Cardinal, who Raynelle interviewed earlier, is also eager to try her hand at hosting. Learning how television works is exciting for her. She says most of the kids at Mistassiniy would like to be in the class.

One thing Mustang TV has not yet achieved is getting no-shows to come to school. When Stevens takes attendance there are still a large number of absentees - most of them students who are registered, but he’s never seen.

On a recent episode of Mustang TV, principal Thomas was asked by a student if he felt things were improving at the school. He said yes. But "these things take sometimes three, sometimes five years."

However long it takes, Thomas and others at the school say Mustang TV is tangible evidence that positive change is happening.

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