Quebec's only off-reserve Indigenous school saved from closing

An unexpected injection of new funds will save the groundbreaking Tshiueten project from the chopping block. It is the only off-reserve school in Quebec dedicated to Indigenous children. 

The Rives-du-Saguenay school board voted last Tuesday to keep the special program going after the Education Ministry pledged to provide another subsidy for the upcoming school year.

Last January, the board had announced the school would close after only five months of operation.

"We have gotten excellent news in the past few days," said the school board's director-general, Chantal Cyr.

"There's a demand within the community, so they [the education ministry] are really listening to that demand."

New money, new setting

Twenty Innu and Atikamekw children from kindergarten to Grade 2 are attending class in Saguenay as part of the Tshiueten project. The school incorporates learning Indigenous languages and culture into its daily curriculum. 

Right now, the classrooms are located inside the Laure-Conan adult learning centre, where many Indigenous parents also study.

During its first year operating the school, the board was taken aback by its expense. 

The need for services — as well as professional support like speech therapists, social workers and support for children with disabilities — led the project to cost six times more per child than it would in a regular classroom.

Operating costs for the year reached $335,000. The province kicked off the project with a grant of only $205,000.

Cyr has been told to expect a similar-sized subsidy for the upcoming school year as well, so the school board has looked for ways to deal with the funding shortfall.

Next year's Tshiueten classes will be held within a standard elementary school, allowing students to share resources.

Resource sharing, cutting costs

Right now, the board is evaluating which of its elementary schools can spare space for the Tshiueten children, though any new location will be better equipped to satisfy their needs.

"There will already be a daycare. There will already be a secretarial staff. Already transportation services and professional services will be inside the school, too," Cyr said.

The students will mix with non-indigenous children within the school, but will be surrounded by other First Nations children while in the classroom.

"We really want to create an atmosphere for Indigenous students, so the location's setting will be an important criteria to consider so that we can better translate what is true to their own culture," she said.

Cyr also does not yet know whether the program will face a similar funding problem one year from now.

"We dare to hope that this amount will be recurrent," she said.