“I feel much more motivated to go to school this year,” 15-year-old Kimberly Kakekayash says, sitting at her kitchen table on the evening before school was supposed to start in September.
Then it didn’t.
Kakekayash had to put her new-found enthusiasm for school on hold this fall in Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug, a remote First Nation about 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont.
The start of high school was delayed when one of the three secondary teachers quit abruptly, only a few days before classes were supposed to start.
I want to pass high school and college. I want to get a job.
With no qualified local substitute high school teachers, administrators were scrambling to recruit a new teacher willing to move, on short notice, to this fly-in community where few people speak English outside of the school and the nearest Tim Hortons is a plane ride away.
“Some of the teachers just leave,” Kakekayash says matter-of-factly. Some disappear at Thanksgiving, others don’t come back after Christmas.
Some of the kids just leave too. They just stop showing up for class.
“Sometimes it’s personal problems,” Kakekayash explains. “I was like that too in Grade 8 and part of Grade 9.
“It was just because of my depression,” she says, brushing her bright pink hair over her face.
She can’t remember how or why things got better. But they are.
“Now I want to pass high school and college. I want to get a job.”
It sounds like a simple dream, but to achieve it, Kakekayash will need to overcome many hurdles that would be unheard of in other parts of the province.
The school she attends in Kitchenuhmaykoosib is falling apart. You can stick your finger in the gap between the original building, constructed in the mid 1960s, and one of the later additions.
The foundation is crumbling and the entire structure is moving, causing cracks in the walls and ceilings.
“I don’t know how anyone down south would look at this if they saw their schools like this. I bet they would close it down,” says Peter Nanokeesic, the operations and maintenance manager for Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug.
Sometimes he loses sleep thinking about all the problems at the school that he doesn’t have the money to fix.
Nanokeesic hopes the Liberal’s education promises will bring money to build a new school soon.
Principal Jemima Cutfeet dreams of two new schools -- one for high school students and one for the overflowing classes of elementary school kids.
Right now all 300 students in the First Nation, ranging in age from 4 to 18, walk the same halls, use the same gym and share the same small library, stocked with donated books.
Facilities are only one problem. Cutfeet says the funding gap for First Nations schools becomes especially harmful in high school when students are working towards a provincially recognized diploma.
The education authority in Kitchenuhmaykoosib estimates it receives one third less funding per student than provincial schools. That’s without considering the increased costs of everything from teachers to textbooks in the remote north.
“If they want us to function as a provincial school, then they should give us that provincial funding,” Cutfeet says.
Without it, Kitchenuhmaykoosib can only afford to provide limited high school classes, and only up to Grade 10.
That means, in order to pursue her dream of finishing high school, Kakekayash will need to leave home next year, when she’s only 16.
Kakekayash say it’s “scary” thinking about moving hundreds of kilometres away from home, without her family.
“I talk to her everyday about achieving her goal,” says her mom, Karyn Paishk. “I’m really proud of her, but sad at the same time that she’ll be off to Grade 11 next fall.”