Student safety top priority at First Nations high school
The high number of assaults and incidents of racism against First Nations people in Thunder Bay over the past few months have reverberated through the city, including at Dennis Franklin Cromarty (DFC) high school.
Making the situation even more troubling for students at the school, one case under investigation by the Ontario Provincial Police allegedly involved a member of Thunder Bay Police Services driving a DFC student outside of the Thunder Bay city limits and leaving the student to walk back on a cold winter night.
“I’m scared of (the police), from the stories I heard,” said Marsha Kennedy, DFC’s president of the student council. “I know they are supposed to be the good guys, but it seems scary.”
Meanwhile a number of students have been pulled from the school by their home communities, due to the perceived lack of safety in the city.
As a result, DFC has increased its efforts to ensure the safety of students and keep the lines of communication open between home communities as well as local organizations.
DFC principal Jonathan Kakegamic understands why the students were pulled from the school, and said that the school respects the communities’ decisions to do so.
“It makes sense for those students who went home, they’re young,” Kakegamic said. “But the girls who left, they’re coming back in September. Despite what’s going on in the city, there are still kids who still want to come here because of what we do here at the school.”
Two weeks ago the school brought in NAN Legal Services’ CEO Celina Reitberger to educate students on their rights when dealing with police.
“The idea was what happens if you’re stopped by the police, what do you have to tell them, how do you protect yourself,” Reitberger said. “We are now in the age of electronics where you can record things. It’s all about having a little knowledge, which can make you feel empowered.”
Reitberger also gave her card to the students, informing them that they can call her 24 hours a day if they ever need help in dealing with the police or the legal system.
“I am very grateful she was there to answer their questions, and that there is someone out there who is willing to be there for them,” said DFC’s vice-principal Sharon Angeconeb.
Reitberger said she believes there has been an increase in the number of incidents of racism and assaults against First Nations people in Thunder Bay, in part due to Idle No More and an increased awareness of First Nations rights and issues which has caused a backlash.
Her observations were backed up by Kennedy, who said she has heard stories of ill treatment towards her fellow students by citizens of Thunder Bay while they were doing simple things like waiting for the bus or even hanging out at the local mall.
“It happened to me too, security guys following me around,” Kennedy said. “I felt targeted, and I was actually just shopping too. The security guard was like ‘Oh you guys better leave now, you better get out of here. We’re gonna call the cops.’”
While Thunder Bay Police Services Chief JP Levesque said there has not been a surge in reports of assaults on First Nations people in the city over the past month, it may be that the assaults are not being reported to police.
“I don’t know that we’re hearing about it,” Levesque said. “And we can’t investigate what we don’t hear about. I’m not saying its not happening, I’m just saying that it hasn’t been reported to us.”
Levesque added that his police force’s Aboriginal Liaison Unit is at DFC “almost daily” in an effort to work with students and build trust with First Nations youth.
The Ontario Native Women’s Association (ONWA) also presented to students at DFC on Jan. 10, bringing tips for how female students can be safe.
During the presentations ONWA handed out personal safety alarms, which are the size of a key chain and emit a high-pitched noise.
“Female students deserve to feel safe within their own communities, and we hope that carrying these personal safety alarms, along with the included safety information and tips, will help,” said Maryanne Matthews, ONWA’s director of communications.
However, for the school itself, addressing the safety issues of students is not enough.
Kakegamic explained that, while it was important to address personal safety, it is also important to keep the lines of communication open between the students and their home communities and leaders to empower and encourage the students.
“There are so many people from the north in Thunder Bay every day, but they don’t come to see their kids. That does something to them,” Kakegamic said. “When a leader comes to this school, the kids are smiling for days after they’re gone. Their leader, their chief, came to see them. The people up north don’t realize how much power and influence they have.”
Kakegamic is happy that Anishinabe people still have respect for chiefs and hold them in high regard. “We had the chief from Muskrat Dam come visit, and I was empowered. (The chiefs and leaders) need to know that.”
The school has already held a number of video conferences between students and leaders in the community, with more planned in the future. DFC is also continuing on with their Elders program, which is now educating the youth on the importance of keeping safe.
“What we say to our kids is no different from what other parents say to theirs, don’t drink, stay safe, and be home at a reasonable hour which is 10 PM,” Kakegamic explained. “Our kids are awesome! They’re behaving. We had a case conference and there have only been about three alcohol incidents since Christmas and maybe 17 curfews - that used to be in one night. So the kids are responding to be responsible.”
Email to a Friend
add to del.icio.us