To get to the nearest high school, 15-year-old Max Kakakegumick needs to get on an airplane.
School only goes to Grade 9 in his home of Eabametoong (Fort Hope) First Nation, 350 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont. A combination of insufficient government funding and relatively few students means teens must move hundreds of kilometres away to pursue a high school diploma.
There’s a quaver in Kakakegumick’s voice as he waits to get on small 9-seater plane that will take him away from his grandmother, uncles, aunties and cousins all gathered at the airport to say goodbye.
“You get to meet more people while you’re out over there,” he says, bravely listing off the positives of city life. “And they treat you like you’re older.”
There’s also high speed internet and Tim Hortons, both unavailable in the isolated community of about 1300, and both big draws to a teenager.
It’s scary [in the city]. You have to be more focussed on your surroundings.
‘Tim’s’ will be his first stop when he lands in the city.
His family hopes his next stop will be a self-defense class.
Seven students from remote First Nations, like Eabametoong, have died in Thunder Bay since 2000. The cause of four of the deaths remains a mystery, despite a coroner’s inquest that wrapped up in June.
Much of the testimony at the inquest dealt with the racism faced by First Nations students when they move to the city for school.
“They do worry,” Kakakegumick says of his family. “It’s scary [in the city]. You have to be more focussed on your surroundings.”
At home in Eabametoong, Kakakegumick is surrounded by nature. The community is located on a lake and its calm waters have a soothing effect on a late summer evening when fall changes are in the air.
“Just looking at the lake, it makes me think: this is Aboriginal land, that we have freedom here, the freedom to hunt and fish,” Kakakegumick said, sitting at the water’s edge on the evening before he left.
The teen loves fishing. He loves just being out in a boat. He’s never tried hunting and is sorry to miss the opportunity this fall while he’s away at school in the city.
While in Thunder Bay, Kakakegumick will live with his older sister, a student at Lakehead University, who also left Eabametoong as a teen for high school.
More than a decade later, Ardelle Sagutcheway is happy to play host to her brother. She knows how hard it is to be away from everything familiar and she thinks it’s unjust.
“Students in the north have always gotten less than other youth in Ontario, based alone on the fact that they are born First Nations,” Sagutcheway says.
The French-Catholic school board in Thunder Bay received a little more than $27,000 per student (excluding capital costs) for the 2015/16 school year, according to evidence presented at the First Nations student deaths inquest. Students in federally-funded First Nations schools in the area receive approximately $13,000 per student
“No one wants to talk about this issue, because then that means looking straight at the reason why it has become normalized this way for First Nations people,” Sagutcheway says.
Neither Sagutcheway nor Kakakegumick are planning a life in the city. The sister dreams of returning to Eabametoong as a nurse. The brother, as a welder.
“I want to come back here and watch the community grow,” Kakakegumick says taking a deep breath by the lake before he leaves. “Clean air is better than Tim’s.”