Near North ‘is broken and needs to be fixed,’ says Shawanaga chief

By Jennifer Ashawasegai-Pereira
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Parry Sound North Star

“Biindigen. Mii gwi Anishinabek wewana nkenmaaminak dependajig maa kiing. We acknowledge in a good way, the original people of the land  here. We value the cultures, histories and relationships with the  Indigenous Peoples of Turtle Island (North America).” 

That’s the generic Land acknowledgment on the Near North District  School Board website. A feel-good, but pan-Indigenous statement, which  at least starts out in Anishinabemowin. It doesn’t reflect that the  school board largely operates in Anishinabek territory and within the  Robinson Huron Treaty area. 

Also lacking is a commitment to reconciliation. Many in the country  have been working toward reconciliation across many sectors since the  Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released its report and  Calls to Action in 2015. The trauma of Indigenous Peoples has been at  the forefront since the remains of children were confirmed in late May  of 2021 at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British  Columbia. Since that time, the number has climbed to thousands and still  counting. Places of education haven’t historically been safe spaces for  Indigenous Peoples, and in 2022, they should, by now, be safe spaces.  And they’re not really — yet. 

One of the ways toward reconciliation, according to Henvey Inlet  First Nation (HIFN) Gimaa (Chief) Wayne McQuabbie, is understanding  Indigenous history, culture and language. He said, “If they would  understand us, they would hold more respect for us as First Peoples.”

Gimaa McQuabbie indicated his community has an improved relationship  with the school board since they had wanted to change school board  districts about six years ago. HIFN is the northernmost community along  Highway 69 in the school board district. Elementary-aged students are  bused to Britt Public School, 20 minutes away, for their education. High  school-aged youth go south to Parry Sound High School, a longer drive  than going to Sudbury.

In the meantime, Shawanaga First Nation Gimaa Adam Pawis admits  there’s room for improvement to meet the needs of their students who  attend NNDSB schools. 

“Our relationship with the school board is a functional one, but it’s  not a beneficial one. The school board doesn’t meet the needs of our  students or our neighbouring students,” he said. 

Due to the lack of relevant Indigenous-related curriculum or  language, about 23 years ago, Shawanaga First Nation created its own  school for kindergarten to Grade 5, Kinomaugewgamik Elementary School.  “We keep our kids in the middle of the circle, in the centre of our  community,” he said. During an era of Indigenous cultural  revitalization, the children maintain connection to the Land and culture  through added pieces of curriculum, like harvesting and cultural  activities. They’ve also opened the doors to students from Magnetawan  First Nation (MFN) for about two years now. For MFN, it’s a longer drive  than nearby Britt Public School. 

Which is why it’s more important now than ever to implement the  education recommendations from the Calls to Action. But to date, Gimaa  Pawis said to his knowledge, the Near North District School Board has  not reached out to talk about reconciliation. Even after the racist  incident at Parry Sound High School when a noose was found at the  entrance to the Shapatuan (elongated teepee). It was the second  vandalization to the traditional structure, but there was very little in  the way of action from the school board. 

Another area that lacking substance is First Nation representation on  the school board. Chief Pawis said he’s aware there’s one  representative and understands the work it takes to advocate for change,  and it would be helpful to have more Anishinabek representation.

A rough estimate of around $2 million dollars goes into the coffers  of the Near North District School Board from all of the First Nations in  the area. That’s a lot of skin in the game, and Gimaa Pawis said the  education is mediocre. He said there’s been a lot of cutbacks over the  years, especially to extracurricular activities and sports. 

Requests were made to interview NNDSB Director of Education Craig  Myles or Chair Jay Aspin, along with FN Trustee Nichole King about NNDSB  Reconciliation and FN communities. However, Metroland Media was  referred to Director of Education Superintendent Melanie Gray, who also  holds the Indigenous Education portfolio. It was agreed that an  interview would be granted after the representative returned from  vacation and after media questions were sent. However, the interview  request was denied before questions were emailed. The communications  department relayed a message, “ … they share a concern that they may not  have the information you seek at this time, as consultation is required  with FNAC (First Nation Advisory Council) in September. Plans have yet  to be approved by this legislated committee.”

Chief Pawis dreams of seeing a private school come to fruition in the  area. “We live in the Georgian Bay biosphere. (We can be doing great  things in the STEM field (International)). I would like to see a school  match the education given at Rosseau College along with land-based  learning.”

“The school board is broken and needs to be fixed, not just for us,  but also for our treaty partners and international guests,” he added. 

Anishinaabe Kwe Jennifer Ashawasegai-Pereira is a freelance Local Journalism Initiative reporter who lives and operates from her home in Henvey Inlet First Nation, Robinson Huron Treaty territory.