Four Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School (DFC) students sit in the office of principal Jonathan Kakegamic.
They are not in trouble. On the contrary, they are members of the Regional Multicultural Youth Council, a group providing a voice for youth of northwestern Ontario since 1985. The students are here to talk about their experiences of moving from their home communities to the city of Thunder Bay.
Marsha Kennedy of Sandy Lake First Nation is the president of the council, though she prefers to be called “chief.” The 17-year-old first moved to Thunder Bay when she was 13 and attended a school where she estimates she was among 20 Native students going to the school with a student population of more than 1,200.
The next year, she transferred to another school, but in the first year there she returned home due to homesickness.
“In the beginning, I focused on the homework because I had academic classes,” she says. “But I guess the stress got to me.”
Marsha transferred to DFC last year and lasted 20 days.
“I got sent home for drinking,” she says.
When she first moved to Thunder Bay, she was afraid she’d get lost or get jumped. She only knew three friends, who she knew from back home.
“But after a while, we got sick of each other,” she says, laughing.
Kevin Rae, 17, recalls moving to the city from Deer Lake.
“First time I got here, I got in trouble a lot of times,” he says. “But this year I’m going to try to change that.”
Linda Kwandibens first moved to the city from Mishkeegogamang First Nation while in elementary school.
“I didn’t have a choice because I was in (foster) care,” she says.
At 18, she should have graduated from high school by now. Instead, she’s in Grade 11.
“I came back so I get my life back: get a job, get an apartment. Grow up, pretty much.”
Linda gets homesick a lot. She has a lot of siblings back home; so many, she’s embarrassed to give a number. She compromises with more than five. As the eldest, she says she’s always worried about them.
“I do talk to them, see how they’re doing.”
She says she quit school to move back at least once because of her concerns.
Darren Gray of Cat Lake isn’t afraid to tell how many siblings he has: he’s the youngest of 12. He also fell behind in school but it wasn’t necessarily his fault: the school in his community burnt down, leaving him to finish Grade 8 when he was 16 after a new school was built.
At 18 years old now, Darren recalls his impression of the city before moving.
“I heard about murders, and I worried about getting lost or jumped. My dad said to have a buddy system.”
Marsha was also afraid of getting lost or jumped, while Kevin says he was excited to move to the city last year, but he was also “scared in a way.”
Drinking alcohol was a common thread with the students. Each has a story of being caught by Kakegamic outside a liquor or beer store.
“It’s J.K.,’” one recalls saying when spotting him. “Don’t run.”
“What, there’s a beer store over there? I didn’t know that,” another recalls saying. They laugh about it now, though, at the time, it was a problem for them.
“I met friends who were into stuff,” Linda says. “Nothing major, but enough to get into trouble.”
She abused alcohol so much that she dropped out of school.
Racism comes up early in the conversation. Each has experienced it on various levels.
“They would throw eggs at me, or drive by and yell something,” Kevin says.
Marsha also says people have thrown “stuff at me, or yell ‘Go home.’”
“Guys would park in front of me, or follow me and creep us out,” Linda says.
Linda and Marsha have experienced separate but similar incidents while attending other schools. Marsha says in Grade 9, one student dressed up, wore feathers and face paint and began to war whoop in stereotypical fashion. While at another school, Linda recalled a fellow student calling her and other Native students some racial slurs. In each case, the students reported the incident to a principal or vice-principal, only to have their complaint dismissed because the offender is “Métis” or “part Native.”
“I was pissed off,” Marsha says.
These are some of the challenges teens from northern communities face when moving to the city, and there’s the added stress that comes with being a teenager.
“They have to take public transit just to come to class,” Kakegamic says. “They should be heroes for having to do that.”
This year, DFC has more than 150 students that moved in from 23 communities, all seeking a high school diploma. The school offers a variety of programs to ease the transition of moving from their community to the city. Students are provided with a 24-hour hotline to call if they ever need assistance, be it counselling or a ride home. The school has a van that looks out for students during after-school hours, should they be in dangerous areas or are out past curfew. There’s also an Elder’s program where students can sit and talk with an Elder at school.
Ultimately, Kakegamic says, it’s up to the students to seek help if they need it.
Darren, Kevin, Marsha and Linda are among those who have spoken up and are taking an active role within their school and community.
Linda is looking to start a music program where students can record music.
“So you can record your rap,” she says to Kevin.
To help combat alcohol abuse, each of the students are enrolled in the school’s alcohol abuse support program, similar to Alcoholic Anonymous.
A couple of the students are taking judo, also offered by the school. Darren says it came into use when he was walking home one night last year.
“I was listening to my iPod, and I heard footsteps behind me,” he says. A young man, unprovoked, attacked Darren from behind. Darren fell and was stunned, but he got up and when the assailant tried to attack again, Darren executed a hip toss, which he learned in judo. The assailant’s lower back hit the curb.
“Then he got up and ran,” Darren recalls.
Darren sustained a swollen eye.
When asked what advice the four students would give to their fellow students, the immediate response was “be positive.”
“Get involved in activities as much as you can,” Marsha says, “even if you don’t like it.”
Linda adds: “Make new friends. And find a hobby if you can.”
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