Wed. Dec. 28, 2005.
Tales of hope from northern schools - Teachers getting parents involved - Success stories despite daunting odds
LOUISE BROWN - EDUCATION REPORTER
It's not your typical school field trip, even up in Ontario's Far North.
The annual Grade 9 moose hunt in the remote reserve of Fort Hope — complete with "firearms protocol" and tips on how to produce the quickest kill — is part of a broad move to boost Ojibwa children's sense of identity and help them feel ready to learn.
In a year filled with reports of despair from across Canada's First Nations, teachers and principals from Ontario's most isolated reserves flew "south" to Thunder Bay recently to share some moving tales of hope.
This quiet little conference on "best practices" north of 50 may offer an early peek at the sorts of programs Ottawa could choose to support with the $1.8 billion it promised native schools last month at the historic First Ministers' Aboriginal Summit in Kelowna, B.C.
The Toronto Star reported earlier this year about the daunting social odds faced by children in schools on federally funded northern reserves in the series Ontario's Forgotten Children.
Yet despite the odds, a growing number of northern schools brought good news to the conference organized by the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents 49 northwestern Ontario reserves.
Here are some of the more dramatic success stories:
Meanwhile, while the Fort Hope students learned much from their moose hunt, they did not actually shoot a moose, confides principal Steve Bentley.
"I wouldn't say anything to the kids, but I imagine a group of 13-year-olds having fun would have a hard time surprising any animal at all."
Honouring unsung heroes of the north - Living conditions among the challenges
April tour of reserves reveals rare educators
Dec. 27, 2005
LOUISE BROWN - EDUCATION REPORTER
Running late because he had been busy moose hunting, David Kakegamic was a different breed of education director than I'm used to interviewing.
But then, the fly-in community of Sandy Lake, Ont., is a different kind of community than the kind I generally cover.
It's wrapped in woodlands, hours by bush plane from the nearest library, coffee shop or hospital — and the children here face a different level of challenge than I've ever seen.
In the isolated northern reserves where photographer René Johnston and I went to report on schools last April, we saw living conditions that were shocking to find in Ontario. But we also met a most inspiring and motley crew of educators working to help these children learn.
High in the northern bush, out of sight and mind from the rest of Canada, an eclectic army of visionaries — some native, some non-native and a whole rowdy bunch from Newfoundland — are devoting years of their lives to helping Ontario's forgotten children. I didn't get to write about them in our series, but they are the unsung heroes of the north:
Grizzled Hungarian refugee Joseph Farsang, a veteran teacher with white stubble and soft heart, walked the gravel roads of the poverty-stricken North Spirit Lake First Nation, night after night, to visit his more needy students and encourage their parents to send them to school.
Genteel teacher Laura Marchand, a retired principal from Vancouver Island, would slip food to hungry students and scold parents and staff she suspected of using crack.
Teacher Lynda Brown of Sandy Lake set up a weekend reading program for children in the school library and discreetly laundered the clothes of students whose families have no washing machine.
Ponytailed teacher Chris Williams returned to his hometown of Weagamow Lake with a native teaching diploma and now uses a gentle manner and firm rules to deal with a Grade 5 class that includes a student with fetal alcohol syndrome disorder, another with a speech disability and several with behavioural problems.
Soft-spoken artist Saul Williams' passion for children outweighs his Grade 8 education to make him not only the beloved education director in his hometown of Weagamow Lake, but a powerful advocate for children in the 24 reserves across the Sioux Lookout District.
He can remember being flown off to residential school as a boy, and dropping out.
He is fighting to ensure that his own son has a better future.
It was an honour to meet them.