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Away to school

Levi Sofea says he hopes his 13-year-old daughter doesn’t face the same racism and culture shock he experienced when he left his home community to go to school.
Levi Sofea sits in his office on June 8, 2012. (Jeff Labine,

Levi Sofea says he hopes his 13-year-old daughter doesn’t face the same racism and culture shock he experienced when he left his home community to go to school.

Sofea, who lives in Webequie First Nation, hasn’t talked to his youngest daughter Gayle, who is in Grade 8, about going to Thunder Bay for her high school education. She could choose to stay in the remote community and attend the high school that’s there but the school doesn’t offer credited sciences and mathematics courses in order to go to university.

For those courses, she would have to move.

Sofea traveled to go to school himself in Sault Ste. Marie. There he took math courses and was able to bring that knowledge and experience back home with him.

But he said going away wasn’t a completely enjoyable experience.

He said being away from his community, he had to endure racism, culture shock and loneliness.  

Having gained this knowledge through his own life, Sofea said he’s trying to keep his daughter rooted in her traditional ways so if she does choose to leave she can cope better than he did.

“Part of me wants her to go out for school,” Sofea said.

“I want out when I was 13 years old. I finished my second-degree education and I want her to do the same. Hopefully, she can cope with the negativities that are out there better than I did. My education has helped me. I’m analytical in thinking and going away for school has helped me especially with the work that I do right now. I feel she can be much stronger than I was."

But like many parents, Sofea said he’s concerned about the safety of his child and hopes what he has taught will keep her safe.

Judith Beaver, a Grade 6 student at Simon Jacob Memorial Education Centre in Webequie, said she wants to stay in her home community and not travel for school. She said it’s important to stay close to her family.

But not everyone made the decision to stay.

Jordan Wabasse from Webequie came to Thunder Bay for school but died on or about May 10, 2011 at the age of 15. The provinces' chief coroner recently called for a joint inquest into the deaths of seven Aboriginal teens including Jordan who were attending school in Thunder Bay.

It's an expansion of the inquest involving Poplar Hill First Nation 15-year-old Reggie Bushie, who was found in the McIntyre River in 2007.
Webequie Chief Cornelius Wabasse said his community is still trying to heal and find answers and hopes the inquest will lead to those answers.

“I did meet with the family and I said ‘it will be part of the healing process’.” Wabasse said. “We are still searching for answers for what really happened. Hopefully this inquest will bring more clarity for the family themselves.”

Keewaywin First Nation Chief David Thompson shared Wabasse’s hope in finding answers as well. He said his community is still broken up about Kyle Morrisseau, who died on or about Nov. 10, 2009 at the age of 17.

Thompson said he wished the youth didn’t have to leave in order to get an education but there’s no choice but for them to leave. He said many of the students who do go away are only 13 or 14 years old and the whole experience can be shocking.

He said he wished the government would provide more resources so the youth could stay in the community until Grade 10 and then leave when they are a bit older.

“Some of things that are happening in Thunder Bay you can’t help but think that there is something going on,” Thompson said. “It’s really hard to see children being apart from their families but these are the choices we are forced to make for our children to get a quality education. If we are going to survive in this new way of life and the way things are being done, the youth have to adjust in order to survive.”

Thompson said Morrisseau’s father and mother are still suffering from their son’s death.

He said it’s the school that attracts students it’s the allure of a bigger city.

He added he hopes when the inquest is finished they will have answers.

Twitter: @labine_reporter


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