WARNING: This story contains references to youth suicide.
Another remote First Nation in northern Ontario is celebrating the opening of a new school.
Wapekeka First Nation, about 450 kilometers northeast of Sioux Lookout, is home to about 500 Oji-Cree people. The community’s former school, Rev. Eleazar Winter Memorial, burned in May 2015. A temporary school was opened in 2016.
“It was very hard when our school burned. Many hearts were broken and many memories were shattered,” said Director of Education Ronald Brown.
Construction of the new school was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but on Friday the community came together to cut the ribbon on the Rev. Eleazar Winter Education Center.
The school will have between 120 and 140 students in kindergarten (K4) through eighth grade. Band director Joshua Frogg said the community can usually accommodate its ninth- and 10th-graders before they finish high school in Sioux Lookout or Thunder Bay, but there is a shortage of teachers. This has meant that 14 and 15 year olds have had to move out early.
The $39.5 million project, sponsored by Indigenous Services Canada, is among other new schools in the region, including:
“I feel very happy inside,” said Wapekeka Chief Brennan Sainnawap. “It’s been a long time, a lot of setbacks, but we didn’t give up.”
Get the students back
Rupinder Kaur Jabbal and her family moved to Brampton, Ontario, from India in 2019. Having previously worked in remote communities, she took the opportunity to teach in Wapekeka, where she was able to secure a permanent position instead of being a substitute teacher in the Greater Area from Toronto. Her husband has been hired as a drug clerk and community health representative in Wapekeka.
While her youngest child can attend kindergarten in the community, her oldest has been placed on a waitlist for online learning through the Peel District School Board due to a shortage of high school teachers in Wapekeka.
Kaur Jabbal said everyone has been kind and supportive, although she is concerned about what she has heard about low student attendance.
Georgina Winter, the school’s assistant principal and one of its teachers, will have 28 students in grades 5 and 6 this year, although she describes her class as consisting of multiple learning levels ranging from kindergarten to grade 5. The Attendance has dropped significantly since the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused many students to fall behind.
Up to half of the school’s students require special education services. Winter said the community has not had a special education teacher since the pandemic began in early 2020, although there are classroom aides who provide additional assistance.
“We’ve tried a lot of incentives to get them to come to school, but it’s still a little difficult to get them to participate in school,” Winter said. “I hope that with this new school that we have, we will have more students coming to school because we have a lot of facilities that they could use.”
Those facilities include a kitchen, a gym, a children’s play area, a hockey rink and sports fields, thanks to community lobbying for funding from the federal government.
At the temporary school, students had to walk outside to get from class to the community gym, Winter said.
“Here they could just walk into the building,” he said. “We don’t have to worry about them getting cold.”
Still, challenges remain.
Winter said the new school’s classrooms are small and, as of Friday, he was missing 10 desks for his room. Teachers will have to get creative to find storage space as staff finish moving supplies into the building in time for classes to start next week, she said.
There is also the question of transportation. Winter said the old school was located in the center of the community, within walking distance, while students will have to take the bus to get to the new school.
“From where I live, it’s like an eight-minute walk, and for them, it could be [a] 20 minutes walk if you live on the other side of town.”
If the school bus driver is sick or students miss the bus, “attendance won’t be as good.”
Hopes for the next generation
Wapekeka students gave Breaking: positive reviews about the playground, which is where most of the children were during the grand opening ceremony.
“It’s bigger than the old school and I like it,” one student said. “I can’t believe there’s a playground here.”
There was some criticism about the height of the bars and basketball hoops (they are too high), although students can adjust to their new equipment.
Several students said they didn’t go to school every day, but would go more often if their friends went there.
Precious Cutfeet, a 20-year-old community member, said she would like to see more young people supporting each other to achieve their goals.
Cutfeet lost her best friend and sister to suicide, and is a survivor herself. Now, “life is good,” she said, and she is expecting a baby in November.
“Where was school when I was your age?” she said, laughing. “But I’m glad the community decided to give them a new school, a new environment to enjoy learning and exploring.”
He left school at age 13 due to bullying. Cutfeet said that when he was dealing with his own mental health issues, volleyball was a great coping mechanism. She plans to attend the games in the school’s new gym and is looking forward to her son being able to attend.
Despite challenges with school attendance, Cutfeet said he is hopeful for Wapekeka’s next generation.
“We wouldn’t even talk about our feelings, and I’m surprised this generation does. [It] “It makes me happy,” he said.
“I just hope they find someone else to talk to,” he continued. “Being in that hole, that deep, dark hole, it’s very hard to get out of, especially when you’re doing it alone. You need people around you.”
Next year, Cutfeet plans to return to school to study math, English and science, and eventually earn his high school diploma.
You can contact the children’s helpline 24/7 at 1-800-668-6868. Talk Suicide Canada can be reached 24/7 at 1-833-456-4566.