Why First Nations students aren’t coming back to Thunder Bay

Safety concerns are driving down enrolment at the city’s high school serving remote First Nations
By Jon Thompson - Published on September 15, 2017
a boy standing outside a school
Kyle Yellowhead, 17, from Nibinamik First Nation, attends high school in Thunder Bay. Despite being assaulted in the city, he’s determined to stay. (Jon Thompson)

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THUNDER BAY — Kyle Yellowhead’s parents were worried for his safety when he told them he planned to register for high school in Thunder Bay again.

This would be the second time that the 17-year-old moved 350 kilometres southwest from remote Nibinamik First Nation to Thunder Bay for his education. Last year, he returned up north within two months of starting school, after struggling with culture shock and homesickness. 

Eight days after he landed in the city to make another try, Yellowhead was robbed at gunpoint and badly beaten when his assailants found he wasn’t carrying money — but this time, he’s staying.

“I was actually just thinking about going home,” he says. “Now, I just want to keep going.”

Many First Nations families seem to have voted with their feet by deciding not to send their children back to Thunder Bay. The all-Indigenous Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School reported that as of the first day of school this September, only 71 students had registered, down from 130 last year.

Parents in the remote First Nations of northwestern Ontario — where secondary education isn’t available — have spent the summer watching Thunder Bay respond to what the city itself calls a crisis. With September approaching, they had to decide whether to send their children to Thunder Bay.

In May, the bodies of two teenagers from remote communities were discovered in the city’s Neebing-McIntyre Floodway within 11 days of each other. Their deaths came only months after the conclusion of a coroner’s inquest that examined the deaths of seven other young people from remote First Nations between 2000 and 2011, five of which occurred under similar circumstances.

The Thunder Bay Police Service and its board are now the focus of two separate civilian investigations into accusations of systemic racism and how police handle Indigenous deaths — nearly 40 cases are under review. In June, the city’s mayor and police chief were arrested in an unrelated matter on extortion and obstruction charges, respectively.  

On August 1, officials conceded that the city was in crisis and pledged to work with First Nations leaders to ensure that students would be safe when school resumed in September.

Derek Fox, Deputy Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN), holds the education portfolio, which represents 49 First Nations north of the city: few of them have road access, and none of them have secondary schools. He hasn’t heard of any families pulling their children out of school completely, but acknowledged that the issue of sending children to Thunder Bay has been a divisive one for some time. 

“Some feel they’d never send their kids [to Thunder Bay] — and it’s not just from last year. They believe Thunder Bay is the most racist place in Canada,” Fox said. “Some of the kids have told their parents they want to come here, that they can handle it and they can succeed here, regardless of the negativity or the racism issues. I was in that group of kids who grew up in Thunder Bay with all the racism, and I found a way to overcome it.

“The reality is, the [enrolment] numbers are down, and a lot more [people] believe Thunder Bay’s not a good place for their kids.”

School boards throughout the region think there’s been an influx of students from NAN communities — although they’ve yet to calculate it. The live-in Pelican Falls First Nations High School near Sioux Lookout is at capacity, and First Nations students are enrolling in schools as far away as southern Ontario.  

Many of those leaving Thunder Bay are joining the Keewatin-Patricia District School Board, which is located northwest of the city and spans 75,000 square kilometres.

In May, after a three-year negotiation, NAN and Keewatin-Patricia signed a memorandum of understanding designed to enhance the educational opportunities and support that NAN students receive. Since the school year began, the board’s education director, Sean Monteith, has been in daily contact with his principals throughout the district to monitor rising enrolment. He’s looking forward to fostering a closer relationship between NAN communities and education authorities, and frames the issue as a right to education.

“The decision of where to send them to school has become more of a safety question than it has been an education question,” Monteith said. “One of the things that has weighed on me over the summer is, there are many families in the Far North where parents are now having to make the decision, ‘Do we send our kids to school, or do we keep them home?’ It’s a completely untenable concept, and we should never accept that as acceptable.”

In late June, Don Rusnak, MP for Thunder Bay-Rainy River, held a press conference to announce a summer “reconciliation summit” involving all parties tasked with implementing the coroner’s inquest recommendations.  While his office has networked with local groups working on anti-racism initiatives, no meeting to organize such a summit ever took place.                                                                                                                        

“In the media event, I never said I was leading it. I said, ‘We’ll see where it goes.’ I’m not the leader in this,” Rusnak said. “The media event was meant to bring people together and put the call out to get individuals to contact us to see how we solve this problem in the city.”

Although the city of Thunder Bay, the neighbouring Fort William First Nation, and NAN committed to developing a joint student safety plan by September, the parties never subsequently held a formal meeting.

Institutions have focused on responding to the 145 recommendations from the coroner’s inquest. According to lawyers representing six of the families whose children’s deaths spurred the inquest, all levels of government have begun working on more than 70 per cent of the long-term and medium-term recommendations, and half of the 80 short-term recommendations have already been enacted.

The families’ lawyer Jonathan Rudin held a press conference in late August during which he released a report card on the progress of all parties tasked with responding to the inquest recommendations. Rudin praised the work of First Nations education authorities and said he was optimistic about the efforts being undertaken by the city and its police department. He was, however, critical of the federal government, pointing out that in its responses to 23 of the recommendations, it had used exactly the same wording.    

“Even though the city didn’t get the greatest grades, they made a lot of progress on 97 per cent of the recommendations,” Rudin said. “As you move outside of Thunder Bay — as it becomes more abstract — it seems interest may fall off.  It’s crucial, particularly for the education authorities, that they get the support they need.”

During Rudin’s press conference, the federal and provincial governments jointly announced $10 million for First Nations education authorities. Funds were pledged for on-call workers and various other resources for students attending school in Thunder Bay and other urban centres.

While some communities and families are exploring alternatives, a number of First Nations are doubling down on their commitment to Thunder Bay. In August, the nine communities that make up the Matawa Tribal Council signed a letter of intent with the city to purchase Grandview Lodge, a surplus long-term care facility, which they intend to convert into a live-in school for their students by the fall of 2018.

“Certainly, we are committed to the city,” said Matawa chief executive officer David Paul Achneepineskum at the signing ceremony. “As our communities grow, maybe someday, some of our communities will have high school for Grades 9 and 10 where there’s a large population, but [right now] there’s a lot more than anyone can handle. Some of the parents choose to send their kids here to the city. That’s our target, and we’ll be working with our communities on that.”

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.

CORRECTION: This piece originally identified Matawa's chief executive officer as Bruce Achneepineskum. Matawa’s chief executive officer is, in fact, David Paul Achneepineskum. TVO regrets the error.

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