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After seven student deaths, Indigenous educator looks to on-reserve schooling as a solution

For Indigenous students living on reserves near Thunder Bay and Sioux Lookout, there is no choice but to leave their homes if they want to complete their high school diplomas. After a coroner's inquest into the deaths of seven students who did just that, questions are being raised about the safety of boarding schools.
During the summer of 2016, a coroner's inquest into the deaths of seven Indigenous students attending boarding schools in Thunder Bay concluded that three deaths were accidental, but for the other four cases, cause of death still remains 'undetermined.' (Marc Apollonio/CBC)

Between 2000 and 2011, six students who were boarding away from home in Thunder Bay and attended the Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School, died.

Curran Strang, 18, Robyn Harper, 18, Jethro Anderson, 15, Paul Panacheese, 21, Kyle Morrisseau, 17, and Reggie Bushie, 15, had left their home communities of Webequie First Nation, Pikangikum First Nation, Keewaywin First Nation, Kasabonika First Nation, and Mishkeegogamang First Nation to pursue education opportunities that were not available on their reserves.

A seventh student Jordan Wabasse, 15, also died in this time period under similar circumstances, and he attended Matawa Learning Centre.

A coroner's inquest into the deaths devised a long list of 145 recommendations for schools and police to implement to try and prevent future tragedies.

Norma Kejick is the Executive Director of Northern Nishnawbe Education Council (NNEC), the organization which runs Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School school, and several other education programs. She joined Duncan McCue on Cross Country Checkup to discuss boarding schools, and what insight they might offer to the development of Indigenous education.

Norma Kejick is the Executive Director of the Northern Nishnawbe Education Council. She spoke about the concerns parents have when their kids move off-reserve to go to school. 8:14

Duncan McCue: Norma, it's got to be every parent's nightmare to hear news that their child away at school has died. Is it difficult to get parents in Northern Ontario to let their children go away for school at all?

Norma Kejick: It's very scary for sure, after losing seven students. It is very scary for parents to let their children go away for school. And NNEC, the organization that I work for, we have 24 First Nation communities in our district that we service. And out of those 24 First Nations, only five of them have high schools, and only two go to Grade 12. The rest go to Grade 9 and 10. And if students want to continue their education, they must leave their First Nation community to finish their high school diploma.

DM: Last summer, a coroner's inquest into the deaths of the students from Dennis Franklin Cromarty made recommendations including improved funding for Indigenous education. Are you seeing those improvements in Thunder Bay and in other programs?

NK: We haven't seen the improvements yet. We are working towards them. There are 146 recommendations that came out of that inquest. We have numerous committees that have been set up to deal with those recommendations. So, there are 54 recommendations in total that deal with education and then out of those 54, there are 26 that are directed at the Northern Nishnawbe Education Council. The other ones are directed at organizations like the Thunder Bay Police.

It is very sad that it has taken seven deaths to bring all of us to the table. But, that's happening now where before there wasn't communication happening, there weren't discussions happening on how we can make education better for students who have to leave their First Nation community to attend school in Thunder Bay or Sioux Lookout.

DM: Is the solution to have schools closer to home?

NK: It would be. The reason why Pelican Falls High School opened up in 1992 was because we were not seeing the success of our students in provincial schools. And then Dennis Franklin Cromarty opened up in 2000 because we had a high wait list of students wanting to get to Pelican Falls First Nations High School. At one point, we had over 340 students on a wait list to go to high school at Pelican, and that's when they decided to open the urban high school in Thunder Bay.

DM: What other solutions have you been looking at to try to make sure the kids are getting a safe and high quality education? Is distance learning part of the options here?

NK: NNEC does operate three high schools. With the two that we mentioned, Pelican Falls and Dennis Franklin Cromarty, we also run a First Nation radio high school.

DM: A radio high school? How does that work?

NK: It's like a talk show. So, our students are in 24 First Nations communities. Our teachers teach on radio in Sioux Lookout. We have lines for 13 communities that can call in. We are on the air from 10 in the morning to 10 at night. It's regular high school [with] 55 minute classes. You may only have one student in one community taking English classes. But, they will have other students in their class from other communities. Their teachers teach on radio and the students go to a local learning centre in their community. We hire a local distance learning coordinator who works in that learning centre, and they're the eyes and the ears for our teachers. Their assignments are shipped up weekly on Tuesdays to the communities through the local airline, and then on Tuesday, they also send their assignments back. With technology, we're starting to scan and email more. In the beginning, it was mainly the airline and fax machines that we used.

DM: Final question for you, Norma. What about students who want to go on to higher education in Northern Ontario? What options do they have?

NK: At NNEC, we also operate a post-secondary funding service. We do take up funds for students to further their education in post-secondary. One of the things that I wanted to say was that I also found an article in the newspaper on Friday talking about one of our schools in Thunder Bay and how we have segregated our students and that may have not been a good thing. The comments that I was reading really upset me because the teachers at Dennis Franklin Cromarty go above and beyond for our kids. We become the family for these students while they're out. We've lost six of them and we never want that to happen again. Our school is open until 10 o'clock at night. Our teachers work tirelessly with them. You'll see teachers painting with them.  We have another room that feeds them supper.

The total number of graduates at Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School since we opened … we have graduated 276 students at our high school in Thunder Bay. Last year, they broke a record with 32 graduates. This year, we're going to break another. We're expecting 35 potential students to graduate in Thunder Bay. At Pelican Falls High School, we have graduated 400 students since we opened in 1993 and we have 24 potential grads for this year. Our grad rates are there and our retention rates are there.  But, we have a lot of work to do with our students. When they come out, we're their guardians.

This online segment was prepared by Samantha Lui and Ayesha Barmania on Feb. 27, 2017. Norma Kejick's and Duncan McCue's comments have been edited and condensed.

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