Eight students made up the first class to graduate from the school in Colville Lake, N.W.T., in eight years.
The community put on a feast last week to mark the occasion and celebrate the achievements of students from Colville Lake School during a year of adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It was a momentous occasion and, as it was described by Behdzi Ahda First Nation Chief Wilbert Kochon, "a long time coming."
He said that 2013 was the "last time a couple of kids graduated."
"It was kind of emotional for me to see some of my nephews graduate," Kochon said, adding he hopes the students continue to pursue their education.
"I think they've learned both our culture [and] to learn to live on land. Now, they have to pursue their education and continue. If they need help they can always come to us … we're all here to support them."
Pandemic not the only challenge
The COVID-19 pandemic added a layer of challenges to the school — which already faces a myriad of obstacles.
Colville Lake, population 129, has just over 50 school-aged children. Older students attend classes in a small log cabin. A one-room portable nearby houses younger children down to junior kindergarten.
The cabin is too small to accommodate all the students while observing restrictions.
That meant high school students ended up taking their classes in the evenings, and their teacher Johanna Rose French put in extra hours to make sure they had a quiet space to finish their course work.
Sometimes, she said, they were in the classroom until 10 p.m.
"Students have been working really hard to try and finish and have been motivated to graduate," said French.
She believes the evening classes actually improved attendance among high school students.
They could work with fewer distractions and didn't have to compete for space with multiple grades, she said.
The structure also doesn't have walls to divide classrooms. Limited sound barriers make it difficult to run multiple classes simultaneously, said French.
"It's very crowded and space is limited, and you can hear everything," explained French.
The community has been pushing for a new building to meet the needs of its school-aged population.
At one point during the school year, the buildings' pipes burst and it was closed for several weeks — forcing staff to find another space to teach, she said.
Special group of kids
Reflecting on the school year, French said the graduates can credit their own hard work, and the support of their families.
"I think everyone's family was very proud of them," she said.
"They're a really special group of kids — or adults and, they worked really hard and their parents are really supportive," said French.