How do you create a back-to-school plan in a First Nation?

School reopening presents a real threat for First Nations communities, where education has historically been underfunded. Biigtigong Nishnaabeg, still waiting for federal dollars, is turning to land-based learning
By Charnel Anderson - Published on Sep 09, 2020
Biigtigong Nishnaabeg has embraced land-based learning as a way to balance education with COVID-19 public-health recommendations in its back-to-school plan. (Courtesy of Lisa Michano-Courchene)

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This fall, students in Biigtigong Nishnaabeg will spend more time outdoors, learning how to fish, hunt for moose, pick medicines, and harvest manoomin, or wild rice. Educators in the First Nations community, about 300 kilometres west of Thunder Bay, have embraced land-based learning as a way to balance education with COVID-19 public-health recommendations in their back-to-school plan. “Unless it’s severe weather, you’re going outside,” says education director Lisa Michano-Courchene.

Biigtigong Nishnaabeg, which is located on the shores of Lake Superior in the heart of the boreal forest, has 60 students ranging from junior kindergarten to Grade 8: in the mornings, they’ll be in the classroom with fewer than 12 other students, studying core subjects such as math and language arts. In the afternoon, they’ll head outside to reconnect with the land and explore their territory. When it comes to land-based learning, “the sky is the limit,” Michano-Courchene says.

But developing a back-to-school plan that aligns with health recommendations has been a challenge. While many First Nations in Ontario have so far managed to avoid COVID-19 cases in their communities — to date, there have been only 64 confirmed cases on over 200 reserves in the province — school reopening presents a real threat for First Nations communities, where education has historically been underfunded and the resources and infrastructure necessary to prevent and contain coronavirus are insufficient.

In order to prepare for the upcoming school year, Biigtigong Nishnaabeg purchased hand-washing stations, electrostatic cleaning machines, and Plexiglas shields for students’ desks. The biggest expense, though, has been increased janitorial services, says Michano-Courchene, adding that Biigtigong Nishnaabeg is paying for these measures through revenue it has generated itself. “Our First Nation and our leadership always prioritize the young, and in this case, our students,” says Michano-Courchene.

students crouch on the forest floor
In the morning, Biigtigong Nishnaabeg’s 60 students will be in the classroom; in the afternoon, they’ll head outside to reconnect with the land and explore their territory. (Courtesy of Lisa Michano-Courchene)

Like many First Nations, it has yet to receive additional funding to support safe school reopening, despite an August 26 announcement by the federal government pledging $112 million to support elementary and secondary First Nations schools on reserves across Canada. “Nothing,” says Michano-Courchene. “There’s been nothing other than what we normally negotiate through the system with the federal government.”

A spokesperson for Indigenous Services Canada told TVO.org via email that “we are in the process of finalizing allocations and will be distributing the funding directly to communities shortly.”

As most First Nations in Ontario don’t have a high school on-reserve, students must travel off-reserve to complete their education. In Biigtigong Nishnaabeg, older students are bused back and forth to the public high school in Marathon, 20 kilometres away. If there were an outbreak of COVID-19 in the area, Michano-Courchene says, the community would put up a checkpoint to monitor the movements of community members, and high-school students would transition to online learning. "We have to prepare for that possibility,” she says.

High-school students from remote First Nations communities, which can be accessed only by air or by ice roads in the winter, typically travel to larger centres, such as Thunder Bay or Sioux Lookout, to attend high school.

The Matawa Education and Care Centre in Thunder Bay, for example, serves First Nations students from nine remote communities. Last year, the alternative high school had 140 students; so far this year, there are just over 40. Many of them reside in Thunder Bay, but a few have travelled from their home communities up north to attend school.

MECC has made arrangements to educate students who have decided to remain in their home communities, says principal Brad Battiston, adding, though, that online learning poses a challenge in remote communities with limited internet service. “We’re reduced to faxing and mailing and talking on the phone with those students to complete their assignments,” says Battiston. “We fax [the assignment] to the band office or to the school, and they have to go get it, or someone’s got to bring it to that student’s house. In some cases, we’re relaying information to a third party. It’s a difficult way to learn.”

Both Thunder Bay’s Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School and Pelican Falls First Nations High School, near Sioux Lookout — which serve First Nations students from 24 northern reserves — have decided to keep their doors closed until further notice.

a boy uses a tool on a tree while other children look on
This fall, students in Biigtigong Nishnaabeg will spend more time outdoors, learning how to fish, hunt for moose, pick medicines, and harvest manoomin, or wild rice. (Courtesy of Lisa Michano-Courchene)

“It was a very tough decision,” says Dobi-Dawn Frenette, director of education for Northern Nishnawbe Education Council, which operates DFC and Pelican Falls. “But we can’t open the schools to our students until we’ve secured the additional resources that are required for the COVID-19 recommendations.”

Frenette says that NNEC submitted a costed plan to the provincial and federal governments, requesting between $5.5 million and $7.5 million to implement COVID-19 recommendations. Much of the funding NNEC is seeking would go toward providing a community learning coordinator and creating a safe, functional space for students who are studying remotely in their home communities.

The Ministry of Education has promised to provide PPE, but, Frenette says, NNEC has “yet to hear back in regards to any additional funding beyond that.” (TVO.org reached out to the Ministry of Education for comment but did not hear back by publication time.)

“Education is not only a human right, it’s a treaty right,” says Frenette. “And our students need to know that they are a priority and that they’re worth investing in.”

Unlike many First Nations in Ontario, Biigtigong Nishnaabeg has authority over on-reserve education through a self-governance agreement with Canada, which allows educators to adjust the curriculum to meet the needs of the community, among other things. “If there’s any type of lining in this situation,” says Michano-Courchene, it’s that “we were doing our own thing anyway.” However, she notes, “not every First Nation community is in the position we’re in.”

As Biigtigong Nishnaabeg waits for federal funding to arrive, Michano-Courchene says, “We’re doing the best we can with what we have.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northwestern Ontario. It's brought to you in partnership with Confederation College of Applied Arts and Technology. Views and opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the college.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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