Poplar Hill First Nation does not have its own high school.
Instead, students can enroll in the Keewaytinook Internet High School, which Chief Dennis King said gives youth the opportunity to complete their high school education online.
“There’s usually a large turn-out when it opens in September,” King said. “But gradually it declines in the middle of the school year.”
King, who used to be the community’s education director, said that most youth prefer to go to the city to attend high school.
Reggie Bushie was one such youth. He moved to Thunder Bay to attend the Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School in the fall of 2007.
In November 2007, police recovered the body of Bushie in the McIntyre River. His death remains unsolved. From the perspective of King and other chiefs, a thorough investigation was never completed.
After years of delay, the inquest into Bushie’s death has been combined with six other First Nations youth who died while attending school in Thunder Bay under similar circumstances.
The deaths of Kyle Morrisseau, 17, and Robyn Harper, 19, of Keewaywin First Nation will also be investigated in the joint inquest.
Keewaywin Chief David Thompson agrees with King that many youth want to go live in the city.
“I wish our kids were taught here, but the big city life really attracts them as well,” he said. “I’ve said to some people: it’s not the education that attracts them, it’s the city.”
And while the families worry at home, the youth struggle to adapt to urban life, Thompson said.
“When our children go out, there’s a culture shock,” Thompson said. “They have to adjust in order to survive. And then they place less emphasis on their own culture when they come back. They lose some of their identity.”
The chiefs hope that the five-person jury of the joint inquest will provide recommendations that address these concerns.
King wants to see more government-funded programs for the youth living in the city.
“Like how to get our youth there in the evenings when they have nothing to do, give them something to do, to get them off drinking and stuff like that,” he said.
Thompson, on the other hand, wants more funding to allow the youth to remain in the community.
“I wish the government would provide more resources, so we can provide the education they need in communities, at least until Grade 10 for a start,” Thompson said. The recommendations are not legally binding, but Thompson said he hopes “the government will listen to any kind of recommendations coming out of the inquest.”
NAN Deputy Grand Chief Terry Waboose agrees that there needs to be more support for the students living in the city and for First Nations education in general.
“It’s certainly not enough, and the more programs to increase support not only for their learning environment but their social and recreational aspirations while they’re away from
home needs to be attended to as well,” he said.
Waboose said there needs to be a focus on keeping the youth safe while living in the city, while also addressing some of what he called the “systematic issues” faced by First Nations students, such as racism.
The main concern for the chiefs is finding out exactly what happened to the youth who died.
“I hope for the lives that were affected, that (the joint inquest) will ease their mind into what really happened,” King said.
Although a representative in the chief coroner’s office called the joint inquest ‘atypical’ due to the number of deaths involved, Waboose said it is important to get all the answers.
“It’ll be complex and it’ll be difficult at times, but it has to be done and the truth has to known,” he said. “It’s my foremost concern and hope that we don’t lose another youth understand these circumstances.”
National Indigenous Peoples Day which takes place on June 21 and the wider National Indigenous History Month in June is a significant time for Indigenous...