Mikisew Cree First Nation (MCFN) has announced its intention to start up a new school on its reserve, adjacent to Fort Chipewyan, Alta.
The move marks a new step away from Northlands School Division (NSD) and towards self-governance for the northern Albertan band.
“We have to be able to set our curriculum the way it meets our needs,” said Mikisew Chief Steve Courtoreille. “Our children are not understanding the (Cree) language, not knowing how to speak the language. We could set our own curriculum the way it meets the needs for our future.”
The band also decided to take control over the education of its youth because its members were unhappy with chronic low student attendance and achievement rates.
“I don’t want to badmouth Northlands, but they haven’t delivered the quality of education the way they should,” Courtoreille noted. “I can understand in previous years where young people left school for other reasons, mainly going out trapping and going out to the land, that was understandable. But today, our children are falling through the cracks, they’re not being given the quality of education that they need.”
The plan to start a new school has been in the works for some time, he noted, explaining that the NSD had been helpful and supportive throughout the initial process.
“The First Nation has wanted their own school and actually we’ve been involved with them for well over a year now,” said Northland superintendent Donna Barrett. “This is something they’ve wanted and we’re working with them to make that transition work. We’ve been on a committee with membership from the federal government and both of the First Nations to support them in their conversations about getting a new school.”
It is unclear what will be in store for the NSD’s Athabasca Delta Community School.
“The future of the ADCS will lay with the community,” Barrett said. “We’re still a few years away from actually getting a school and so we’ll continue to provide support to the students and provide education for the students.”
A place for all students
“The school is not only going to be for the Mikisew people or Mikisew youth, it’s for the community,” Courtoreille said. “The other first nation, the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) are welcome, the Métis people are welcome, any other students that may come into the community are welcome to come to the school.”
However, he said, curriculum will be developed with MCFN youth in mind, with input from the residents of Fort Chipewyan. Cree immersion and history classes centred around the experience of the First Nation will be top priority in the new curriculum.
Eventually, other Dene languages – like Chipewyan – will likely be worked into the classrooms, to make the school more inviting for ACFN youth.
“ACFN is not in partnership (because) if they decide to develop one of their reserve lands … they will have the ability to build their own school that will take them out of the community onto their own territory,” Courtoreille said. “We want to respect that, and they are supportive and respectful to us.”
Prioritizing the trades and opening up apprenticeship opportunities for students will also be a focus for the new school.
Currently, the band is working out the basic logistics of the school, including location and curriculum development.
“We’re looking at three different sites in our traditional territory; where the old Bishop Piche school was (is) one of the sites we’re very interested in,” Courtoreille said. “That site is a priority, but we’re looking at other sites in case that land is not suitable for this day and age.”
The band has contracted MCFN educator Roy Vermillion to develop the school’s operational plans, as well as to provide advisory assistance in the design and building of the school.
Slated to open in 2018, the new school will join a list of about 500 others around the country included under the Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC) envelope.
“It’s not a hope, it’s not a dream,” Courtoreille said. “It’s going to be achieved.”