FORT WILLIAM FIRST NATION, Ont. – Deanne Bannon admits she has some anxiety about her daughter starting school next year.
But some of that worry has been alleviated now that her daughter, Leena Bannon-Erickson, will be one of up to 30 Fort William First Nation children able to go to school in their community.
The Thunder Bay Catholic District School Board and Fort William First Nation on Thursday announced a new pilot project for a full-day kindergarten program to run out of the community centre beginning in the fall.
“I’ll feel safer that she’s with people I know and I’ll feel comfortable with her being with people that we know,” Bannon said.
The new kindergarten program will operate as a satellite site of St. Ann School will have a teacher and student support staff from the board.
Pino Tassone, the board’s director of education, said the initiative is long overdue and addresses barriers for the students getting to school.
“It’s about engaging the students here on Fort William First Nation and the key here is the well-being of students,” Tassone said.
“There’s the barrier of the long bus rides. We’ll get them to school. There’s also the before and after school care so those parents that work very early or really late, we’ll provide a program for them at the beginning and end of the day. Once you get the kids in school, then learning will take place.”
Fort William First Nation Chief Peter Collins said more than 50 years have passed since the community’s school was shuttered, with their children having to go to city schools.
That loss of on-reserve education has led to the near elimination of traditional language in the community, he added.
“That’s where you need to start. The young ones are the ones that pick it up the easiest,” Collins said. “We’re hoping this is a step in the right direction to regaining that language and instilling it in our young people.”
The program will also emphasize traditional teachings, elders visits, land-based activities and the learning of Indigenous languages.
“It will be a partnership. We will definitely be using their support in a lot of the initiatives we’ll be doing throughout the course of the year,” Tassone said. “It will be a community based education but it will also be an Ontario education. They’ll receive all the education any Ontario students will receive.”
Philip Pelletier, a Fort William First Nation councillor and Thunder Bay Catholic District School Board trustee, said having a school in the community will make it easier for parents to play a part in their children’s education.
“It’s important for our parents to be involved with our kids in their education,” Pelletier said. “It’s really hard for them when they’re in the city at this young age. If we can get the parents more involved it should lead to more success for the students.”
While the project will begin with kindergarten, the board and community will look into potentially expanding it to include all primary grades.
“It’s always very important to have a best start to your education,” Tassone said. “You have to start at the beginning because our goal is to expand at least to Grade 2 or 3 as we move forward.”