Indigenous students head to Ottawa to ask for a residence to keep them safe in Thunder Bay

Seven Indigenous teens and their teacher are in Ottawa asking the feds to fund a student residence in Thunder Bay, Ont., so they can be safe while going to high school.

Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School has students from more than 20 First Nations in northwestern Ontario

Indigenous students from Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School are in Ottawa asking the federal government to fund a student residence in Thunder Bay, Ont., so they can stay safe while going to high school. Grade 9 student Alexis Angeconeb is on the far right. (Submitted by Greg Chomut)
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Seven Indigenous teens and their teacher are in Ottawa asking the federal government to fund a student residence in Thunder Bay, Ont., so they can be together and stay safe while attending high school. 

The teenagers attend Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School (DFC), which has more than 80 Indigenous students from 20 First Nations across northwestern Ontario.

Most of the students who attend DFC from remote First Nations billet with local families, but say they often feel isolated, unwanted or unsafe.

"We get put in homes with strangers," Alexis Angeconeb, a Grade 9 student at DFC, told As It Happens host Carol Off.

One of her schoolmates, she said, has lived in 13 different homes in the four years she's been at DFC. 

"We want a new living centre to be together, so we can actually communicate with each other."

Angeconeb comes from Sachigo Lake First Nation, more than 600 km north of Thunder Bay.

She spoke to As It Happens from Parliament Hill, where she and her fellow students spent Friday meeting with MPs and senators, including independent senators Kim Pate and Mary Lou McPhedran. 

"We just discussed how they could help us," Angeconeb said. "They said they were going to try their hardest."

Students from 20 First Nations attend Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School in Thunder Bay, Ont. (Marc Apollonio/CBC)

The students also wrote letters and delivered them to Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott's office. 

Philpott was not in Ottawa on Friday, but a spokesperson from her office told As It Happens she will get the letters. 

Indigenous Services Canada says it has allotted funding for a feasibility study for the residence, which was one of seven recommendations from a coroner's inquiry into the deaths of seven Indigenous teens in Thunder Bay. 

"The Government of Canada is committed to working with First Nations to ensure that their children have access to a quality education in safe and healthy learning environments," the department said in an emailed statement.

Unsafe and unwelcome 

The students' housing situations vary. 

Some say they live in dangerous neighbourhoods. Some live far from the school and spend hours commuting every day. Some move from home to home. 

Angeconeb says she's lucky because she likes the family she's staying with, but says commuting in the city can be a struggle.

"We get racist comments sometimes," she said. "Like, 'You dirty Indian,' or 'You don't belong here.'"

Students from Dennis Franklin Cromarty First Nations high school wait on the river bank for the ceremony honouring their peers who have died while attending school in the city. (Jody Porter/CBC)

The risk goes beyond harassment. 

Nine Indigenous youth have died in Thunder Bay since 2000, many under mysterious circumstances. 

A recent coroner's inquest examined the deaths of seven Indigenous students in Thunder Bay between 2000 and 2011, five of whose bodies were found in local rivers. 

Six of the kids at the heart of the inquiry were DFC students.

Since the inquest, two Indigenous teens — Tammy Keeash, 17, and Josiah Begg, 14, — were found dead in Thunder Bay rivers. 

The seven youth who were subject of the inquest were, from top left, Jethro Anderson, 15, Curran Strang, 18, Paul Panacheese, 17, Robyn Harper, 18, Reggie Bushie, 15, Kyle Morriseau, 17, and Jordan Wabasse, 15. (CBC)

"Whenever I hear that my friends are not in for curfew I start to get worried and message them like crazy," Angeconeb said.

"I'm really cautious when I'm out in the city. I always check behind me when I'm walking by myself."

Greg Chomut, the teacher who accompanied the students to Ottawa, told the Globe and Mail that keeping the students safe is hard when they're spread all over the city.

What's more, he said DFC could take on more First Nations students if housing were available.

"We take a lot fewer students than we can manage, and that puts students on wait lists to go to high school," he told the Globe.

'Not like the residential schools'

Despite the risks the students face in Thunder Bay, they like their school, Angeconeb said.

"It's our choice to come to this school," Angeconeb said. "This is not like the residential schools."

About 150,000 First Nation, Inuit and Métis children were taken from their parents by law and forced to attend church-run residential schools in Canada.

At least 6,000 children died at those schools from disease, mishaps and abuse, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 

While residential schools were designed to rid Indigenous youth of their culture and heritage, Angeconeb said that's not the case at DFC.

"They encourage us to do our cultural activities. They encourage us to know our language," she said.

"I think it's really nice that the school is here because they support us so much. I've never been in a school this supportive."

She hopes that if she can share a home with her fellow First Nations students, she'll make more friends.

"It'd be fun because I've heard of some students in DFC that are really cool, but I've been too afraid to talk to them."

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from CBC News. Interview with Alexis Angeconeb produced by Julian Uzielli.