It's taken years of planning and hard work, but Paqtnkek Mi'kmaw Nation students in grades primary to three are now able to get a culturally relevant education in their own community.
Construction on the new Paqtnkek Education Centre building is almost complete. Since the school year started, students have been attending classes in the elders centre in the community, which is about 25 kilometres east of Antigonish, N.S.
But moving day is nearing for the students, with the official opening ceremony for the new school scheduled for Friday afternoon.
Tanya Francis, the community's education director, said Paqtnkek's past and current leadership has worked diligently to make the school a reality.
Five years ago, the community of 600 members held a vote about building their own school, Francis said. The majority voted no, fearing children would not get the same type of education as the provincial system offers.
"We had more meetings with parents and elders and we stressed that no, of course, we're going to follow the curriculum," she said.
"But we're going to do it more in a culturally relevant way for our students."
Racism in schools
Francis said Mi'kmaw students have endured racism in provincial schools over the years and, although it is "getting better," Mi'kmaw students are still disproportionately suspended from school and more likely to dropout.
She said the Paqtnkek Education Centre provides a welcoming and empathetic environment and staff that want the best for the children.
Danielle Gloade, the school's first principal, said the children are enjoying their new school experience close to home.
Gloade said the 22 students stand every morning in a big circle and honour themselves and their ancestors by singing the Mi'kmaq Honour Song.
"We do a smudge as a prayer to give thanks for the beautiful day and this opportunity for these kids to grow in an environment that really is going to nourish them as Indigenous people and really connect to who they are as people and to uplift them," she said.
Speaking their own language
Gloade's grandmother, Nora Bernard, was a Mi'kmaw activist who led the first class-action lawsuit calling for compensation for residential school survivors. She was never allowed to speak her native language in the residential school.
Hearing the children at the Paqtnkek school using their own language is incredible, Gloade said.
The legacy of residential schools led many Indigenous people to feel that they "were not good enough," she said. Gloade hopes that will change once they see how good children are feeling in their own school system.
Francis, whose father was also a residential school survivor, said Indigenous people have endured a great deal of trauma.
"To be taught the way we learn and by Mi'kmaw teachers is the best medicine for our students to move forward and be successful and be proud," Francis said.
MORE TOP STORIES