It Takes a Village
by Drew Tapley
Teachers help flip the script
in Pikangikum First Nation community
She wanted some teaching experience and an adventure. She got so much more.
Alison Lennox is a Grade 3 teacher at the Eenchokay Birchstick School in the troubled First Nation reserve of Pikangikum, 300 km northeast of Winnipeg and just inside the Ontario border. The community is only accessible by air or water.
She had heard about the community from her cousin who taught there a couple of years ago. When she graduated from teachers college, Alison spent a year trying to get onto a supply list with no luck.
“I knew Pikangikum was opening a new school and hiring teachers, and I interviewed via Skype and was offered a job,” explained Alison.
The reserve is situated in the wilderness along the provincial border with Manitoba, and is reported to have one of the highest rates of original language retention of any First Nation in Ontario. For almost two decades, this Ojibwe community has received a lot of negative media attention, mostly for inhalant abuse and addiction, and the epidemic level of teenage suicides that have led to the toxic title of “The suicide capital of the world.”
A fatal fire in the community in March 2016 claimed nine lives, including three young children, and dominated national news headlines. The reserve had no fire department or running water in much of the community to extinguish the fire. Even with a makeshift fire truck, the road conditions in the region were so bad that it couldn’t make it to the scene on time.
Housing has been variously described as overcrowded and standing well outside even the most modest of building and fire code regulations. In the immediate aftermath of the fire, media attention honed in on the deplorable living conditions and abject poverty in Pikangikum, prompting a statement of support and assistance from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Despite these hardships, Alison insists that there is a lot of love, good intentions and hard work to help these children get an education and to provide hope for their futures.
“Most media reports about Pikangikum are true,” admits Alison. “There are youth suicides, gas sniffing and poor living conditions. But there are also people who are working hard to break the cycles of abuse. There is a police officer who runs a program to build positive experiences between youth and police. A lot of locals work at the school and want the best for the kids. It is not all bad. There is good here.”
She says that about 95 percent of teachers are non-native, and most are on contract from other parts of Ontario. Teaching in the isolated community can pose some practical difficulties in the classroom, as Alison discovered.
“If you need something quickly for your science lesson, you cannot just run out and pick it up from Walmart. I don’t think everyone could teach here—you have to be very flexible. There were times last year when the power went out regularly. The groceries at the one store are expensive. I buy meat and vegetables on my way back to the community from Red Lake, and freeze everything.”
Red Lake is the nearest major conurbation, about two hours due south by truck over dirt or winter road to pick up supplies.
“There are some water stations throughout the community where people get water to boil and drink or bathe in. The teachers live in trailers that have running water and plumbing, and we either boil water or get clean drinking water from the Northern Store or the school.”
There is a health facility for locals, and teachers can make an appointment but it is usually a very busy place.
Alison has her own trailer about a five-minute walk from the new school. Some of the teachers share a trailer, placed in a series of rows with a group located near the old school area as well. The school has a truck that teachers can borrow; although with so many teachers and just one vehicle up for grabs, Alison usually walks everywhere. When the winter road is in and the lake is frozen, it is much easier to get around.
“Pikangikum has a lot of beauty—so many trees, breathtaking sunsets, and amazing views of the Northern Lights. However, there is garbage everywhere, buildings are covered in graffiti, and most houses do not have plumbing or running water.”
Alison’s high school friend, Sadie Friesner, develops recreation and leisure programs at Sienna Senior Living—a provider of retirement residences and care communities in Canada. Sadie sent winter hats for the school-aged children on the reserve, and wanted to do more to make a difference. She began looking for seniors interested in corresponding with the school.
Marie Hansen is one such senior who was happy to get involved. She is a resident at Traditions of Durham Retirement Residence in Oshawa, Ontario, and grew up on a farm in Erin, Ontario in the 1930s. Marie sent a letter with information about herself, and what her own experience of growing up was like. “My childhood probably wasn’t a lot different from theirs because we didn’t have indoor plumbing or electricity,” said Marie. “I went to a one-room school house with 27 students and one teacher to cover grades 1 to 10.” She received colourful pictures back from the school, which had been hand-painted by the students.
Another resident at Traditions of Durham, Enid Wood, was a former nurse who grew up in the Gaspé Peninsula in Quebec with her five siblings. She wrote a letter to the school telling them about herself and how important education is for them to maintain. She received paintings as well as a hand-written letter on flipchart paper, signed by a dozen kids together with smiley faces and love hearts.
“I am very proud of these children and what they are doing to better their education,” Enid said. “I would like to stay connected to them.” Enid mailed the school some photos of herself opening the paintings that the students had sent her.
“My students loved that,” said Alison. “Other residents sent pictures of their activities, and a 91-year-old man sent us some historical information about his hometown, along with photos of his grandchildren and the wooden shoes he carves as a hobby. I read all the letters out loud to the class because some of my students cannot read. But they love getting mail.”
More Sienna homes have signed on to develop the intergenerational and intercultural program with Eenchokay Birchstick School, which is demonstrating mutual enjoyment and engagement. Anna Mountian is a lifestyle consultant at Rosewood Retirement Residence in Kingston, Ontario. When she heard about the idea, she decided to make it an in-house program. Her first class was a Skype session between residents and kids at the school.
“The residents were happy to see the kids, and how happy they were to see us,” said Anna, who keeps in contact with Alison to make sure the letters have arrived. One resident sketched and sent a picture of himself from when he used to build houses. During the Skype conference, residents talked about the importance of having hobbies.
“I feel like the residents are teaching my students things, and it’s really cool to bring some joy into their lives as well,” said Alison.
Between 2007 and 2016, the school had been run in portable trailers beside a baseball field. Pikangikum’s only school building burned down in June 2007, which meant the loss of an important central meeting hub. Subsequent problems with student attendance and the retention of teachers ensued for years afterwards, and plans for a new school building went into development in 2012.
The new, nearly 10,000 square metre. Eenchokay Birchstick School opened in October 2016 to replace the previous one built in the 1950s. It is the largest building on the reserve, and holds classes from junior kindergarten to Grade 12. The building’s design celebrates traditional Ojibwe values and culture, with construction materials having been shipped into the community using ice roads in the winter and water barges throughout the summer.
Alison has 29 students in her class—about 25 of them attend regularly. “There is no rule here that students have to attend school,” informs Alison. “And as the grades get higher, fewer of them do. School is definitely encouraged, but some kids don’t come. Pikangikum is actively trying to invest in education to build up the community, and the new school has been a very positive experience for students and parents.”
Having the big gym has allowed them to host events like monthly award assemblies for perfect attendance and students of the month. The school’s large kitchen and two cafeterias also make it easier to serve the breakfast and lunch programs.
A First Nations Student Support program focuses on numeracy, literacy and student retention, and through this program they have a culture team to plan events and activities. These are led by elders in the community and include ice fishing, learning how to check traplines and gillnets, and making traditional bread.
“It is really unique, and allows us to put their culture into the curriculum,” said Alison. “I am teaching early communities in Social Studies, and have an elder come into class to help teach my students how people traditionally made snowshoes. All my students are ESL as their first language is Ojibwe. They are below grade level, and the special education team is not big enough to support the whole school.”
Each elementary classroom contains a local para-professional to help run the class and teach the native language. The academic year starts in September and concludes at the end of June, with both elementary and high school taught under the Ontario Curriculum.
Dr. Todd Cunningham is a University of Toronto professor and clinical psychologist who specializes in academic interventions for children with learning difficulties. He helps direct planning for literacy and numeracy at the school to help students catch up; and the teachers have weekly planning meetings with his team.
There is no doubt a whole slew of reasons for Alison to feel proud of the good work she does and that which is taking place in and around the new school. Yet it is the tenacity and courage of the young people in Pikangikum that has really made an impact on her.
Although her contract officially started on August 17, the school did not open until October 5 once construction was fully completed and the heavy machinery was taken off the premises.
“When we arrived, we had no clue that school would be delayed. We participated in training, and then moving and unpacking all the materials from the old school to set up the new one. If you are not First Nations in Pikangikum, you are either an OPP officer in uniform, a nurse or a teacher. So wherever we walked as teachers, the kids would go crazy, waving and yelling ‘Hi!’ They knew who all the teachers were, and asked us every day when school was starting. It was a cool experience.”
Alison’s teaching experience in Pikangikum has resulted in her being hired by the Simcoe County District School Board in Southern Ontario upon the conclusion of her contract. Otherwise, she says, she would definitely be interested in coming back.“I have truly amazing students who inspire me every day,” said Alison. “They are superheroes because of what they have been through and the fact that most of them come to school every day and try their best. They are kind and funny, and a lot of my colleagues are resilient and work hard for them. I am thankful for the experience I have had, and will be truly sad when I leave. I really love Pikangikum, but I would like to be closer to family and friends.”
In the year she has spent there, Alison has learned that there are not a lot of things that she really needs to get by. “Just people,” she says. “We go on walks, play board games, go fishing, skate on the lake, and chase the Northern Lights. It has really made me appreciate the true beauty of nature.”