Fort McKay First Nation celebrates grand opening of new nation-owned school

Elsie Fabian School, owned and operated by Fort McKay First Nation, had its grand opening Thursday. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC - image credit)
Elsie Fabian School, owned and operated by Fort McKay First Nation, had its grand opening Thursday. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC - image credit)

Hundreds of people celebrated the grand opening of a new school in Fort McKay First Nation Thursday, which is owned by the community and honours a former local educator.

Elsie Fabian School was named after a woman who sat on the school board for 25 years and was a pillar in the community. Fabian's family came out to celebrate and honour her legacy.

"We don't know if we make a difference while we're here on this earth, and I feel that the legacy that my mom has left behind is here in this school," said an emotional Elissa Whiteknife, one of Fabian's daughters.

"It is going to bring future leaders, and future politicians, future councillors, future lawyers. This will promote our children to dream big."

The excitement was palpable during Thursday's grand opening, said Rebecca Fabian, another of Fabian's daughters. Everyone stood and joined in for the round dance.

"There was nobody sitting down," Fabian said. "That's huge. That's what you call community."

Fort McKay First Nation, located 420 kilometres northeast of Edmonton, has clearly needed a new school for years, said chief Mel Grandjamb, noting half of school-aged children in the community were travelling 45 minutes on the highway to attend school in Fort McMurray, Alta.

"At the time, we weren't getting the service from Northlands in terms of the results," Grandjamb said.

Parents in the community had also voiced that they wanted their kids off the highway and back in Fort McKay, he added.

The previous school was built in the 1970s.

The new school, which serves junior kindergarten to Grade 9 and has upgraded facilities, is owned and operated by the First Nation. The school, which cost $35 million, was paid for with grants from the federal government, the First Nation and industry partners.

Its staff is 70 per cent Indigenous, including 22 staff members who are from the First Nation. The curriculum includes traditional practices such as hunting, trapping and language, Grandjamb said.

Jamie Malbeuf/CBC
Jamie Malbeuf/CBC

"It's very important that our young members learn their culture, learn their tradition," said Grandjamb, who is an active trapper and hunter. He wants the next generation to learn those skills.

An estimated 140 students are expected to attend in the school's inaugural year.

Whiteknife, who works at the school as the parent liaison, said students attending the school will get to participate in Cree and Dene languages.

Fabian said there will also be a room for elders, so students can visit and talk to elders when needed.

The next phase of the school build includes a community building that will feature a walk-in freezer in which members can store hides, then tan them in the spring.