THUNDER BAY - Students from northern communities who are forced to travel to cities like Thunder Bay to pursue education opportunities can often feel alone and isolated, feelings educators themselves know all too well.
“It’s a reality. This is not just a job for us,” said Sharon Nate, an education manager for Matawa Education. “Many of the staff here have lived that experience of leaving the north and coming to the city basically on their own. It is still happening today. It happened to my parents, it happened to myself, it happened to my child. I don’t think that is going to stop anytime soon.”
An investment of $16 million by the federal government will allow for the continued renovation of the Matawa Education and Care Centre, which will include a new space for students to call home.
The announcement was made on Wednesday by MP Don Rusnak and Minister Patty Hajdu on behalf of the Minister of Indigenous Services.
An initial investment of $1.9 million for phase one of the project allowed Matawa to convert the Grandview Lodge senior’s facility on Lillie Street into the Matawa Education and Care Centre.
“It is going to do so much not only for the Matawa community, but the community of Thunder Bay as a whole,” Rusnak said. “I’ve always advocated for bringing people together, but you have to do it in culturally appropriate ways. This facility as they slowly get working on it will deliver that to Matawa community members.”
The project was meant to address recommendations of the Seven Youth Inquest by providing adequate education facilities to ensure student safety.
“This is very crucial for the safety of the students because this place will give them a sense of home,” Nate said. “This will be their home. Safety is a major factor in developing the positive outcomes of this program.”
Rusnak believes it will also help bridge the cultural divide between First Nation communities and the people of Thunder Bay.
“There’s no getting around that there have been issues here in Thunder Bay. There have been issues long before the issues that came up in the Seven Youth Ingquest,” Rusnak said. “It will help bring people together, not only for the Matawa students who will go here, but the people of Thunder Bay. The people in the neighborhood. These are kids coming here for education, to better their life.”
The renovations at the Education and Care Centre will see the addition of new classrooms, a gymnasium, and a student residence that can accommodate 100 students.
“Our concept and the idea of this program, when you enter this building, everything is open and accessible to people,” Nate said. “The accommodation centre is more enclosed and private. It’s for the safety of the students.”
The Matawa Education and Care Centre has 140 students registered and when the renovations are complete, which is expected to be in September 2020, the facility will be able to accommodate 200 students.
Nate said the students are really excited about the new additions to their learning centre, but this new student residence will benefit any student travelling to the city to pursue education.
“That is more geared toward the younger students and the ones who leave their homes and adapt to the city,” Nate said. “They don’t necessarily have to go to our Matawa Learning Centre, they can attend other provincial schools. It will give them that option.”