It's been years in the making, but construction has finally finished at the Matawa Education and Care Centre in Thunder Bay, Ont.
The centre invited community members and dignitaries to a grand opening ceremony on Friday to mark the completion of renovations at the building, including its new gymnasium, kitchen, classrooms and Student Care Centre.
The day was intentionally chosen to lead into Canada's third National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on Saturday.
The centre has provided high school education to students from Matawa's nine First Nations since 2010, on the traditional territory of Fort William First Nation. This spring, it celebrated its largest graduating class to date.
After years of providing classes in different locations across town, the city transferred surplus municipal property to Matawa First Nations Management Inc. in 2017. The following year, construction and renovations began at the former Grandview Lodge Home for the Aged to convert the space and make it suitable for students ages 13 to 21.
Classes moved to the centre in 2019. Last fall, a 100-bed facility was opened to provide on-site accommodations for students.
The school has a capacity for 200 high school students, said Sharon Nate, Matawa Education's executive director.
Community members and dignitaries gather at the Matawa Education and Care Centre to celebrate the completion of its construction and renovations. (Sarah Law/CBC)
"It's important for their success, as previous statistics and history have shown that there hasn't been much success for students that have come from the north," Nate said.
She hopes the centre can address these challenges so First Nations youth can flourish.
"They deserve a good education just like every other student in this country, and to come here to have that opportunity and to live in a home that they call their own, that's worth it," she said.
More than just a school
The centre provides more than just a place for learning.
Nate said staff also recognize the importance of caring for students' mental and physical health. There is a safe sobering site on location and different health supports to foster students' overall well-being. Students also have the opportunity to participate in a range of extracurricular activities, including bowling, golf and volleyball.
Construction was done in a few phases, but there were pandemic-related delays. Total capital costs since 2018 amount to $23 million, with the federal government taking on the bulk of the investment.
Nate said she is particularly excited about the new gym.
"Now that we have the gymnasium, we can join the city and the city leagues for sports," she said. "There's always something going on in the school for the students."
Sharon Nate, executive director of the Matawa Education Department, says she is proud of everyone who has contributed to the success of the Matawa Education and Care Centre and hopes it provides a safe space for students to thrive. (Sarah Law/CBC)
Jersey Towegishig, a Grade 11 student from Long Lake #58 First Nation, came to the centre this year.
"I was scared to be away from my mother and my brother and sisters, but it's actually very comforting and feels like home here," Jersey said.
"I really think it's a great place. I feel really safe here. The gym is really amazing and the school has tons of supports."
She said her childhood friend, Dora Ooshag, encouraged her to enrol, and now she hopes to see more students do the same.
Education outside the classroom
Dora, a Grade 12 student, transferred to the Matawa Education and Care Centre this year. She's completing a co-op placement with the school's land-based program and hopes that helps her toward her goal of taking outdoor recreation at Algonquin College.
"This weekend we are going to [Makokibatan] Lake, which is nearby Fort Hope where I'm from, and we are going to go hunt for moose," she said.
Eddy Baxter, mental health and land-based co-ordinator at the centre, brings students on trips like the upcoming moose hunt.
Eddy Baxter and Joseph Willis, left to right, staff members at the Matawa Education and Care Centre, show off the canoe that students are building. The project is part of the centre's land-based program. (Sarah Law/CBC)
"Basically we harvest off the land, be it moose hunting, geese hunting, duck hunting, fishing — we get them to set nets," he said. "We try to get them out on land because they're all from up north, and it's a good experience for them and it's part of their credit."
Joseph Willis, curriculum development officer, said "it's probably one of our most important programs that we have here at our school."
Through these trips, students learn directly from guides and elders, and can then bring that knowledge back to their communities, said Willis. One big project underway is a canoe being built by the students themselves.
"There's a lot of students that may not learn traditionally from a textbook but thrive on the land, and we want them to feel powerful and we want them to feel like their abilities can be understood and valued," Willis said.
"We want to make sure that students always have a chance to have that connection and really have a chance to feel like they're home away from home."