A ‘happy ending’ for Inuvik schools

A ‘happy ending’ for Inuvik schools
Sir Alexander Mackenzie School is an imposing building located on Mackenzie Road, the main street of Inuvik. The building is destined to be knocked down once students move to the new school.Photos: Samantha Stokell.

Two of the territories oldest schools celebrated their history this weekend as the end of the school year and their existence draws nearer.

Samuel Hearne Secondary School (SHSS) and Sir Alexander Mackenzie School (SAMS) in Inuvik held closing celebrations for the final school year on June 15 and 16. The two schools will be replaced by the new “Super School” in September and celebration organizers wanted to say goodbye to the schools in style.

“We want to bring everybody who went to SAMS school together,” said Ruby St. Amand, the school counselor at Sir Alexander Mackenzie. “It’s bittersweet, but positive. It’s a good community and people are meeting their old school friends.”

“We’ve been overwhelmed by a feeling of importance that we’re the last year,” said Angela Young, English teacher at Samuel Hearne Secondary School.” We want them to feel good that they were students and that they have a sense of closure before the buildings are torn down; that the memories are being shared and cherished.”

Festivities included performances by current students, a community feast, old time dance, tours, a pancake breakfast, an open mike radio show and a 50s/60s dance – the last school dance held at SAMS.

“We wanted people to dance to the music when they were at school,” St. Amand said. “We have friends on the Facebook group who wanted to be here but couldn’t. We released 53 white balloons, one for each community.”

Sir Alexander Mackenzie School opened in 1959 as Inuvik Federal School. It had an Anglican wing, Catholic wing and secular wing for high school students. Samuel Hearne Secondary School opened due to increased demand in 1969.

53 balloons were released for the communities of former students unable to attend the closing ceremonies of SAMS and SHSS.

Photo: Samantha Stokell

53 balloons were released for the communities of former students unable to attend the closing ceremonies of SAMS and SHSS.

The schools had students come from across the territory in the Beaufort Delta region, Kitikmeot region and Sahtu, as well as day students living in Inuvik. The students from away stayed in the residences of Stringer Hall and Grollier Hall, which each had a capacity of 250.

While the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that visited Inuvik last year dealt with the cases of abuse that happened at the elementary school and residential halls, St. Amand wanted this closing celebration to be about the good times students had.

“We only had one bad comment, right at the beginning, talking about how the Catholic and Anglican students were kept in separate wings,” St. Amand said. “But someone said, ‘That’s what the TRC was for.’ I was in Stringer Hall, but I know some things. Every story deserves a happy ending and that’s what we’re giving it.”

The school has come a long way from its early, religious beginnings. Where students once received the strap and teachers punished them for speaking their own languages are now rooms with dental hygienists teaching how to brush teeth and Inuvialuktun-immersion classes for kindergarten students.

“We’ve come a long way,” said current principal Janette Vlanich. “The teacher who teaches kindergarten went to residential school and now she’s the one revitalizing the language.”

Organizers hope that while the TRC had moments of fear, anger and regret of the bad memories, the closing celebrations of SAMS and SHSS will complete the process of closure through the joy of good memories.  Guest speakers at the opening ceremonies included the first teacher in Inuvik, Connie Miller, and the first Aboriginal graduate to become a surgeon, Noah Carpenter.

Miller started working before the federal government even built a school in Inuvik, in an old building that still stands on Veteran’s Way in Inuvik. She spent her first summer simply finding the boxes that contained school supplies so she could start teaching in the fall.

“I just felt so special being there that first year,” Miller said during her speech on June 15. “On the first day we had more than 35 children and had to find another teacher.”

Carpenter, originally from Sachs Harbour, flew up for the closing ceremonies for only 24 hours – all he could make time for in his busy schedule in Manitoba. Carpenter graduated in 1962 and fondly remembered the gymnasium where he played basketball and the chemistry room.

“I can still see Mr. Gerrard in the science classroom,” Carpenter said. “Without him I wouldn’t have gone into science. And I remember Bill Bock, who had a huge influence on me going to university.”

St. Amand took Carpenter on a tour of the school, to the gymnasium where he spent so much time and the chemistry classroom.

“The gym was a second home for him and when he went in, he looked around, had tears and just broke down and cried,” St. Amand said. “We gave him a basketball and he just started doing his tricks, bouncing it around him. He was back in his element and we couldn’t get him to stop talking.”

St. Amand has spent a lot of time in the school herself – besides her school career, she has worked there since 1998. She started planning the closing celebrations once she realized no one else was taking up the challenge.

“I couldn’t just let the buildings close their doors,” said St. Amand, who was born and raised in Inuvik. “I’ve been on Cloud Nine, so happy, but then after three weeks I walked through the school and it seemed quiet and lonely and just started crying. I’ve been going through the stages of grieving.”

A Facebook group online has been posting old photos from yearbooks and the school hallways are decorated with pages from the yearbooks. People scoured the walls looking for young and familiar faces.

Judy Francey who attended SAMS for six years had fun at the 50s/60s dance on June 16.

“It’s just exciting to see all the faces and find my old friends,” she said. “My favourite memory was music class. It was relaxing.”

St. Amand’s favourite thing is how the school has changed over the years.

“When I went to school, the other girls were from Resolute or Spence Bay or Iqaluit and they couldn’t go home from September to June,” she said. “We were growing up in residential school. We needed people to help us grow up, to hold us up. The best thing is that parents now come into the school.”

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