Hilary Oskineegish got so homesick during her first week of high school in Thunder Bay, Ont. that she begged her father to take her home to Nibinamik First Nation.

The student population at the high school she was attending in the city is about four times that of her isolated community. She found the halls overwhelmingly noisy; the cafeteria overwhelmingly crowded.

“I didn’t feel comfortable there,” she says, thinking back. “And I felt watched because of my skin colour.”

Oskineegish had already taken a year off from school after Grade 8 in Nibinamik, a fly-in First Nation located about 500 kilometers north of Thunder Bay.

“I just lost interest,” she says of dropping out.

The city high school experience meant another year would be lost as her family looked for a route to a diploma from their tiny community of about 200 residents. It’s too small to have a regular high school of its own.

They found Matawa Learning Centre in Thunder Bay, where at 18, Oskineegish now dreams of graduating before she is 20.

“I want to show my parents that I can make it out here and finish my high school,” she says during a break from her studies.

The learning centre is a private school, run by Matawa First Nations management, to which Nibinamik is a member.

Located on the top floor of a Thunder Bay office building, the school was created by First Nations leaders six years ago. It’s intended to meet the needs of students aged of 17 to 21 from isolated communities where there are no high schools.

“The vast majority are here as a result of not finding success in the provincial system,” says Matawa Learning Centre principal Brad Battiston.

About 30 students attend the centre each year, with one or two graduates per year. Students learn at their own pace, picking up where they left off with credits they may have abandoned because of a personal or family crisis.

“It’s a very slow process,” says Sharon Nate, Matawa’s education manager. “These students come to us with many different issues, not just related to school.”

Those issues can include addictions, mental health concerns or involvement in the criminal justice system.

In the provincial system, the entire student body would be considered “at risk”, Battiston says.

Provincial schools receive additional funding to help with high needs students. Matawa Learning Centre does not.

The learning centre receives $13,000 in tuition per student. That’s the amount of money the federal government provides First Nations in the area for each school-aged person who normally lives on a reserve. By contrast, Thunder Bay’s French Catholic board received more than $27,000 per student, not including capital costs, from the provincial government last year.

What we can give them is a sense of self, of who they are.

That evidence was provided at an inquest into the deaths of seven First Nations in Thunder Bay, including a student from Matawa Learning Centre. Jordan Wabasse died in 2011. His body was found in a river three months after he went missing in the city.

The inquest, which wrapped up in June, recommended that all students, regardless of where they’re attending school in the province, have access to a school nurse and mental health supports. But so far, no new funding has been provided for those supports.

The small teaching staff at Matawa Learning Centre try to fill that gap by creating a supportive, caring environment for their students.

“What we can give them is a sense of self, of who they are,” Nate says. “They can’t get that from the provincial schools.”

It’s what keeps Oskineegish coming back.

“When I came here I felt welcome because there were other Native students and the teachers are really, really helpful,” she says.

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