THUNDER BAY - A federal minister championing the construction of a new school and residence for Indigenous youth in Thunder Bay has students and staff at Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School hopeful a dream that has been ongoing for more than 10 years will finally become a reality.
“It definitely feels a lot closer now,” said DFC teacher, Greg Chomut. “We are not going to stop fighting for it and to know that there are people there that have a voice that can keep the attention on it for us while we are not there, really feels good. It gives us hope.”
Chomut, along with a dozen students from DFC, recently returned from Ottawa where they met with Minister of Indigenous Services, Jane Philpott.
Grade 11 student, Kaiden Angeconeb, said during the meeting, students stressed to Philpott the need for a new school and student residence.
“We told her that if we had a new residence, our programs wouldn’t have to worry about our safety all the time, because Thunder Bay is really known for being a dangerous place,” he said.
Philpott said in a written statement to Dougall Media that she was pleased to meet with the DFC students and touched by their stories and aspirations.
“I promised to be a champion for them and encouraged partners to make sure their perspectives are reflected in the ongoing feasibility study for a new construction,” the statement reads.
Philpott goes on to say that administrators will be working toward completing the feasibility study by March 2019, which will provide the necessary details and direction for next steps.
“She was very receptive,” Angeconeb said of the meeting. “She also said how much she wanted to back us up. In her words, she said she wanted to be our champion. It gave us a lot of hope.”
Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School opened in 2000 but the building itself, the former Northwood High School, is 55-years-old.
Chomut said the building it showing its age, with condensation forming on the walls and ceiling tiles, and just last week, the gymnasium was temporarily closed because of water damage.
“That is just one example of how if you keep dumping money into a dinosaur of a building and it’s working against you,” he said.
The majority of students who attend DFC travel to the city from remote First Nation communities. It can be a big change travelling to a strange city and being away from family and friends, Chomut said, which is why having a living space to call their own would make the students feel more like they are at home.
“It’s easier for us to ensure their safety,” Chomut added. “We wouldn’t have boarding homes scattered throughout the city that we rely on people reporting to us about safety concerns. And the students would have a place that is their own. We have great boarding homes, but that doesn’t mean the students feel at home in them. They are still in somebody else’s space.”
According to Chomut, who has worked at DFC for the past 10 years, the fight for a new school has been ongoing since he started there.
The request has been brought to Ottawa before, most recently last spring when seven students met with federal leaders.
“But this time it seems different,” Chomut said. “This time we really seem to have the support of the federal government, NAN, and all the ducks seem to be in order and we are really hopeful this is going to go through.”
“People need to know that going for a new school and a new residence is really directed by the students,” Chomut continued. “It is not something being imposed upon them. They come out here, travel away from their family and friends and communities and everything they know to go to school and get an education.”
Angeconeb said the students will continue to try and get their message out to the public and political leaders and build on the support they have already garnered at the federal level.
“Seeing all those people there, it just generated a lot of support and it feels like we have a platform to build on now,” he said.