by Xavier Kataquapit
Recently in conversations with several First Nation Chiefs in Northern Ontario I learned that they are all dedicating a lot of time and energy to make education a priority for Native people. I understand how important education is if we want to lift our people out of poverty and open the doors to self sustainability. Today, when I heard the news about the Justin Trudeau Liberal budget announcement to provide funding of $2.6 billion to improve primary and secondary eduction on reserves, I realized that all of the work the Assembly Of First Nations (AFN), Chiefs Of Ontario (COO), Nishnawbe-Aski Nation (NAN), tribal councils across the country and First Nation Chiefs and Councils has resulted in success.
Funding levels in the past were not equal to those of non-Natives in education and when Prime Minister Trudeau lifted the two percent cap on funding increases for First Nations programming and services we all realized that finally fairness had returned to federal politics in this country.
I know first hand how difficult it was to have to leave my home community when I was 13 to attend secondary school in the south. I remember very well that nervous air plane ride to Timmins. Thankfully, I met some wonderful people that cared for me and provided guidance as I attended school there for two years. At that point I moved on to North Bay. I was one of the lucky ones as I managed to survive this education adventure quite well. My brother Joe and I had the care and supervision of our older brother Lawrence and his wife Christine when we lived with them and attended secondary school in North Bay.
I recall how difficult it was to be away from home at only 13 and having to deal with a world I found very foreign and at times hostile. It was such a great thing to be able to return home to attend my last two years of secondary school at our then brand new Vezina Secondary School in 1995. Lucky for me I had discovered some good people who were sober right back in my home community of Attawapiskat and there was even an Alcoholics Anonymous chapter running. I then headed south again in 1997 with a few more survival skills and knowledge and I started to write. There were many people that assisted me on my journey in adapting to life in the greater world. I will forever be grateful to them.
The thing I realize now, is that I should never have had to leave my First Nation at 13 years of age to get an education. I was just too young and many of my friends simply could not deal with all the changes and challenges and fell through the cracks. Many people were wounded in this time. It wasn’t as bad as being kidnapped and sent to residential schools like my parents and many of their generation experienced. Still, it was not easy to try to adapt to the outside world at such a young age.
These days I know that many First Nations have schools in their communities but many still do not and their young people have to leave home to further education in southern cities. In many cases, at such a young age these boys and girls end up experimenting with drugs and alcohol and all too often tragic things happen to them. If they do not make it in the outside world they feel like failures and return to their First Nations broken, hopeless and possibly dealing with an addiction or mental problems.
As someone who experienced a less than perfect situation in terms of First Nation education I can tell you that I am very grateful to Prime Minister Trudeau and the Liberals for making First Nation education a priority for the federal government. I give thanks to all those who have been working so hard to make this a reality with people like: Grand Chief Perry Bellegarde, AFN; Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler, NAN; the many Chiefs, Elders and First Nation Education Directors. I am also thankful for the work of Charlie Angus, New Democrat Party (NDP), Member of Parliament for Timmins James Bay and NDP’s critic for Indigenous and Northern Affairs. On behalf of that next generation of bright, well grounded, strong, proud and skilled First Nation people I say Meegwetch for helping us along the path.
For more information about Xavier Kataquapit visit www.underthenorthernsky.com