Thunder Bay mayor Keith Hobbs says it’s time to re-examine the practice of sending Aboriginal teenagers from across northwestern Ontario to Thunder Bay for high school.
Hobbs, a former police officer, said the teenagers are being put into a “vulnerable position” when they come into the city from small communities to live in boarding houses while attending school.
“These kids are getting sucked into gangs, drugs and crime,” Hobbs said.
“We need to get schooling in northern communities up to Grade 12, equivalent to the education any Thunder Bay kid would expect,” he added. “Children should have the right to live in their own community, until graduating high school at least.”
Thunder Bay’s First Nation high school, Dennis Franklin Cromarty (DFC), came under increased scrutiny last week as the CBC Television program The Fifth Estate aired a documentary on the school.
The documentary focused on seven Native teens from northern communities who have died or gone missing since 2000 while in Thunder Bay attending high school.
But Norma Kejick, executive director of the Northern Nishnawbe Education Council that runs DFC, said shutting down the school is not the answer.
“We need to be working more in partnership to come up with other stuff we can do to keep the students busy and working in the community,” Kejick said. “We have to help students take part in sporting events, and getting them after-school jobs, healthy activities to keep them active.”
Kejick did acknowledge that offering an extra year of school in communities before sending the youth to Thunder Bay could help alleviate some of the problems students face.
“Maybe they need an extra year in the community to prepare,” she said.
In the long run, however, Kejick noted that more and more First Nation people are moving off reserve, whether for employment, education or more opportunities for their children.
“It would be nice if we had a high school in every community, but eventually most youth are going to have to leave,” Kejick said. “Staying in a community where there are not a lot of jobs is not always an option.”
In the Northwest Territories, where students from small communities often had to move to a larger center like Yellowknife to attend high school, there has been a push to have high school programs established in all communities.
In the past three years small Dene First Nations in the territory such as Fort Providence, Bechoko and Lutsel K’e have expanded their schools to all grades up to Grade 12.
“Some of the students were too young to leave the community to move to a whole new one and live with strangers with different schedules, foods and activities,” said Lutsel K’e Dene School Principal Sheila Cavanaugh. “It was difficult to complete school work. The students really appreciate staying in the community.”
Meanwhile Thunder Bay’s mayor said that as long as students continue coming to Thunder Bay for high school the city wants to increase partnerships with northern community leaders to help make the transition easier.
One example is the collaboration the city has with Pikangikum leaders to hold a welcoming feast for new students to Thunder Bay, Hobbs said.
“We need a lot more support systems in place,” the mayor added. “A lot more needs to be done.”
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