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The Schools Keeping First Nations Kids From Turning into "Phantoms"

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by: Craig and Marc Kielburger

In the small First Nations community of Moricetown, in central B.C., teens haunt the convenience stores and gas bars, their lives adrift. Locals call them "phantoms." Cain Michell, then 14, was one of them.

The twisting yet hopeful path he has followed is important to trace, after the recent failure to agree on a national strategy for addressing the education crisis afflicting First Nations communities.

Cain's struggles with school began in Grade 7 when he had to leave the primary school in Moricetown and endure a 45-minute bus ride to a junior high school in Smithers, where most of the students were non-aboriginal. Cain was overwhelmed in a much larger school, thrown into classes with little to say about aboriginal history or traditions. By the end of Grade 8, failing most classes, he just walked away.

The Grade 8 dropout chose friends over school, and attended house parties that lasted for weeks. He seemed to be following his mother, an addict, into the drug dens of Vancouver.

Cain's life changed when Moricetown teachers Tom and Lorna Butz came knocking in 2012, offering Cain the chance to come out of the shadows at the new high school they had founded for local First Nations youth: iCount.

The iCount program keeps its students engaged in education by weaving local First Nations culture through the curriculum. The students get classes in their language -- Wet'suwet'en --and traditional skills like hunting and canoe-building. Community elders are often invited in to help teach.

"When first got there, I knew it would be fun," Cain told us. "Elders came and taught us our language, and drumming. We went out picking huckleberries."

On one memorable day, an elder poked his head into the classroom and invited the students to come watch hunters skinning a moose, prompting a spontaneous field trip to learn how to clean and dress an animal.

Core subjects like math and science are individually tailored to the interests and abilities of each student with practical lessons linking the subject material to the student's career goals. For example, if a youth is interested in carpentry, their math work will have a practical bent towards the math used in the carpentry trade.

Entering its third year, iCount is successful and growing. All 27 students from last year are returning, and there is a lineup of new youth wanting to attend because of what they've heard from friends. The school has had to hire another teacher and three teaching assistants to accommodate the influx. Last year the school moved out of its one room in the community center and took over the entire top floor. Now Lorna Butz says they are seriously considering building their own dedicated building.

iCount isn't the only the only Canadian school initiative successfully attracting aboriginal youth back into the classroom. Last year we visited Oskayak High School in Saskatoon. Principal Craig Schellenberg said that since the school undertook a rejeuvenation project five years ago, putting a greater influence on First Nations culture in the curriculum, the graduation rate has risen to more than 60 students a year from three. In May, Oskayak was recognized with a national award for teaching innovation.

Meanwhile, back in Moricetown, RCMP Constable Kimberly Delwisch, who has been policing in the area for 15 years, has seen a noticeable decrease in vandalism and other youth crime, and an upswing in youth voluntarism and participation in community life. "These kids are thriving. I see a positive change. It's like night and day."

As for Cain, now 16, he told us he is earning A and B grades, and his once empty future is filled with the goal of becoming a firefighter.

Cain's story highlights some of the critical problems facing young aboriginals across Canada: communities that lack schools and a curriculum disconnected from aboriginal culture. Individual initiatives like the iCount school in Moricetown are proof that successful outcomes for aboriginal education are possible.

Brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger founded a platform for social change that includes the international charity, Free The Children, the social enterprise, Me to We, and the youth empowerment movement, We Day.

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