Less than seven years after opening its doors to 900 students, Pikangikum First Nation’s school is bursting at the seams.
To accommodate the growing student population, which has nearly doubled at Eenchokay Birchstick School, administrators have merged some classrooms, moved others online, closed the cafeteria to use the space for cultural programming and converted the library into a special education room.
“We’ve had to be very creative and we are fitting people in where we can,” said Darrin Potter of the Pikangikum Education Authority (PEA), the newest participant of the First Nations with Schools Collective (FNWSC). “We are busting out of the school. We have 500 students that we don’t have space for.”
The growth is a good sign. Pikangikum’s education system, which prioritizes and values language, culture and land-based learning, has developed several successful programs in the past nine years – student outcomes are improving and parents can feel the difference. But at the same time, the crowding puts all of that at risk.
To serve the students in recent years, PEA has also taken the following measures:
- Put students from more than one class in the same room
- Decrease the number of available high-school classes
- Move some in-person courses to online and independent study
- Added a three-bedroom mobile home (trailer) for the young adult program
- Moved administration offices into portables
“We are putting band-aids on good programming to try to give as much exposure to students as possible,” said Potter. “Where else in Canada would people think this is OK?”
Pikangikum, which is located in Northern Ontario, about 300 kilometres from Winnipeg, has requested support from Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) to expand the building in order to accommodate the students, so they don’t have to leave the reserve for school. But the ISC process can take too long and does not reflect the urgency of the situation, said Potter.
“Our students shouldn’t have to wait on the bureaucratic process, but should be provided what they are entitled to: a place to get an education,” said Potter, who is the administration supervisor for the PEA.
“We are doing what we can in the current situation, but we are squeezing people into small places."
ISC has been working to develop Regional Education Agreements with First Nations, but Pikangikum is not sure that would be the right fit. The education board is interested in the collaboration that First Nations with Schools Collective has been working toward since 2016, said PEA Education Director Kyle Peters.
“The FNWSC is a collaborative partnership of First Nations supporting each other in developing the best for our students and communities,” said Peters. “Pikangikum will benefit from this rich partnership and we have a lot of perspective to offer as well.”
Collective Governance Director Leslee White-Eye echoed the benefits of collaborating as a united group of First Nations with schools.
“We are stronger together. That’s why having Pikangikum join the table of communities pursuing funding parity plus and jurisdiction talks is important,” she said. “The Collective is an inter-nation table where communities can share, network, and build on each other’s unique vision of First Nation control over First Nation education and work in a united approach to realize Article 14.1 of UNDRIP.
“Pikangikum has a unique story in education we can all learn from.”
When Pikangikum opened Eenchokay Birchstick as a K-12 school in 2016, it was described as a beacon of hope for the community.
The previous community’s school had burned down in 2007, and was not rebuilt for nearly a decade. Students had been attending classes in portables for the nine years that followed the fire.
Since opening, PEA has developed several successful programs, such as attendance-based student success initiative and a young adult education program for students under 21.
As a result, the nominal role has grown and staff have stretched resources to the limit. Potter said one option for managing the lack of space is sending students to schools in Sioux Lookout or Red Lake, but that is not preferred.
“We don’t want to send students out of the community – sending kids out of the community hasn’t been successful in the past and why do that when we have the expertise at home?”
“What is so encouraging about FNWSC is that these communities have functioning schools that are trying to meet the needs of their students. Building on each other’s strengths and recognizing each other’s independence and supporting each other is a way to share expertise and understand what our needs really are,” he said.
“It helps us dream about what the community needs in terms of education.”