When Priscilla King’s eldest daughter turned 14, she had to send her away to high school, hundreds of kilometres from home. She didn’t want it this way, but King had no choice. Her community, Kingfisher Lake First Nation – like many remote First Nations communities – does not have a high school.
King recalls the day she got the letter saying her daughter, Shawnda got accepted to a high school in Thunder Bay.
“She’s only a kid…I just couldn’t picture myself letting her go on her own,” she said. “It was like losing a loved one for me. I can still feel it.”
Currently, there a coroner’s inquest unfolding, in Thunder Bay looking into the deaths of seven First Nations teens, from remote reserves, who had come to the city to attend high school. Six of them went to the same school Shawnda attends – Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School.
“Being here in the city without your family, it’s hard. Like, you’re alone living in a stranger’s house. You’re going to school with a bunch of strangers,” Shawnda Mamakwa said.
Shawnda lives in a boarding home, and attends Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School, which caters exclusively to First Nations students from Treaty 9 communities in northern Ontario.
“Right now we have a hundred students. They are from… 23 First Nations communities,” said Jonathan Kakegamic, the school’s principal. “All of these communities have no high school… so they need to go somewhere.”
The school does its best to make its students feel at home. The school day starts with “Oh, Canada” sung in Ojibway. There’s an elders room where students can go between classes.
“During breaks, I would always go to the elders’ room because usually it reminds me of home, like the tea and the bannock, fried Klik, and fried baloney,” said Shawnda.
Kakegamic, known as “JK” to his students, says it’s a 24/7 job looking after more than a hundred teens living out here on their own. He knows that it’s not easy to be a teen, alone and so far from home.
“You know… we throw the word family around. Sometimes too loosely. But not here. It is a sense of family,” he says.
Comforting students is one thing, keeping them out of trouble is another, and DFC has struggled with this for years.
“With our history where we lost six students, that weighs on us. And that’s where we need to be very diligent in ensuring that we…look after them every day. All day,” Kakegamic said.
The school stays open long after classes are finished for the day. There are many after-school programs to keep the students busy and out of trouble. There are sports, staff versus students hockey games, places to hang out and relax or do crafts.
There are also patrol teams working for DFC that make sure the kids get home safely at night. They call every boarding home and make sure everyone is in by the school’s 10 p.m. curfew. If they’re not, the patrol begins searching for students until they find them.
“You know if my son was missing, whoever is in charge of my son, I would expect them to keep looking. And we do,” said Kakegamic.
One of the things that has come up in the coroner’s inquest, is the issue of racism in Thunder Bay – something many of the kids at DFC say they’ve had to deal with outside the walls of their school. Incidents of name calling, people throwing rocks and food at indigenous students.
Shawnda says she was in line to buy some fries at the mall and was shocked by what she heard come out of a stranger’s mouth.
Even at a volleyball match against a neighbouring school, Shawnda heard something mid-game that stopped her in her tracks.
“One of the girls on the first line called us savages,” she said. “I was just like ‘What did they just say? Did I hear that correctly?’ To me, I take those words seriously.”
It’s this type of incident that causes Shawnda’s mom, so far away, to worry.
“The way things are now in the city. The way our people are treated … it’s not easy … I try not to worry every day. I try not to worry for her. But I do pray for her safety and well being,” Priscilla King said.
King told 16×9 she believes strongly in the importance of getting an education, and wants Shawnda to finish her high school education in Thunder Bay, but if it was possible to educate her closer to home, she would.
King and her husband, Chris, have three younger children and she dreads sending them away to school one day, too.
“Looking at my little ones, I want to raise them in my community, in my home. I don’t look forward to sending them out in the city. I don’t even want to think about it, about that right now,” she said.
16×9’s “Failing Canada’s First Nations Children” airs Saturday, Mar. 5, 2016 at 7 p.m.