THUNDER BAY - For the first time, a First Nation community will independently operate an education centre in Thunder Bay.
Located in the city’s south side in the former building of Hyde Park Public School, the Lac Des Mille Lacs Education Centre will offer a one-of-a-kind educational experience for members of the First Nation, and members of its new community in Thunder Bay.
Lac Des Mille Lacs First Nation is located approximately 175 kilometers northwest of Thunder Bay, and on Wednesday it announced the grand opening of its new education centre.
The building on Walsh Street was leased by Lac Des Mille Lacs from the Lakehead Public School Board in October. Since then, they’ve offered a number of programs including the Seventh Fire secondary program, which offers high school credits to students, a day care, drumming and knitting programs.
In the fall, the school will host a JK/SK program, with Grade 1 to be added next year, gradually extending right up to Grade 8 year by year. It will be named the I.R. Churchill Elementary School in honour of Irma Churchill, an elder from Lac des Mille Lacs First Nation who recently passed away.
The school will also add a wraparound service program where they will offer resources for students and families that includes wellness, recreational, spiritual, and cultural support, and an adult education pilot program will launch this fall.
“This school will be different,” said the school’s education director Andy Graham. “We’re looking at a very creative approach to education. A lot of land-based experiential learning.”
Part of the curriculum is the inspiration of the land-based activities offered at a community centre on Lac Des Mille Lacs.
“Our goal is to create courses where students will be able to go out and do more land-based activities,” Graham said.
Dr. Celeste Pedri-Spade, a band member of Lac Des Mille Lacs First Nation, says the land-based component is fundamental to preserving the history and culture of the First Nation.
“My grandmother actually evaded the residential school system and was raised in the bush. She was raised in a way where she understood the land as a relative and not as a resource,” Pedri-Spade said. “We need to be educating this way not just for Indigenous children, but for all children.”
The school will have three streams of language programs to offer, which include an Anishinabe/ Ojibwe immersion class, a Cree immersion class, and a non-immersion English class. Graham said it's the first trilingual elementary school he’s aware of in the province.
“The languages are disappearing, and unfortunately between the public and catholic school boards, they’re struggling to find language teachers. They aren’t offering this type of programming at any other schools.”
Pedri-Spade says she and her husband didn’t get the chance to learn their language growing up through mainstream education.
“We don’t have our (family’s) language, we have baby words. That was a result of residential schools in our families and other forms of colonization. So being able to reclaim our education and language is an important part of growth and healing in communities.”
Both Graham and Pedri-Spade agree with the establishment of the school and the implementation of programming, it’s an important step in reconciliation.
“This is the epitome of reconciliation,” Graham said. “(We) want to make this very, very clear: this school is a celebration of all cultures. That’s why we see this as a potential lighthouse program across Canada.”
“I think unlike other models… this is inclusive,” Pedri-Spade said. “While we’re celebrating Indigenous knowledges and languages, it’s not just reserved for Indigenous people. This is for the entire community. I think the spirit of reconciliation is about redefining the relationship between settle people and Indigenous people.. I think the best way to start is with our young people and to nurture a healthy relationship at a very young age.
With files from Gary Rinne.