Why the First Nations School of Toronto is Moving to the Former Eastern Commerce Collegiate Site

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Why the First Nations School of Toronto is Moving to the Former Eastern Commerce Collegiate Site

The school will join the Aboriginal Education Centre, which moved to that location in the summer.

The First Nations school is currently located at 935 Dundas Street East, but it will move in January. Photo courtesy of First Nations Junior and Senior School of Toronto Facebook page.

The First Nations school is currently located at 935 Dundas Street East, but it will move in January. Photo courtesy of First Nations Junior and Senior School of Toronto Facebook page.

Jonathan Kakegamic was eight years old when he decided he wanted to be a teacher when he grew up.

In his Grade 3 class in Thunder Bay, the students were a mix of Indigenous and non-Indigenous, but Kakegamic, who is Oji-Cree from the Keewaywin First Nation, noticed the teacher treated them all the same. It was at this point in his life that his non-Indigenous friends started telling him their parents didn’t want them playing with him anymore. “Because you’re Indian.”

But in that classroom, to that teacher, they were all equal.

“I wanted to be like her,” Kakegamic says.

Now, Kakegamic is principal of First Nations School of Toronto. He’s worked in education for 25 years, first as a teacher and principal in his home community, then as a teacher, vice-principal, and principal at Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School, a First Nations school in Thunder Bay.

“It was hard,” Kakegamic says of the racist remarks he heard growing up. “I got bitter. I got angry. Racism cuts to the core of your well-being, your soul. It does damage to you. It makes you question who you are. I’m in my 40s, and I still struggle with that sometimes.”

That’s why Kakegamic believes the First Nations School of Toronto is crucial. It gives Indigenous kids a place to learn about their culture, their history, and themselves.

In January, the school will move from its current location at 935 Dundas Street East to join the Toronto District School Board’s Aboriginal Education Centre at the former Eastern Commerce Collegiate Institute site off the Danforth. It’s a larger space, with 2.4 hectares (six acres) of land in total.

The First Nations school goes from kindergarten to Grade 8, though in the fall of 2017, it will extend to Grade 12. Its students are from a variety of backgrounds: Ojibway, Mohawk, Mi’kmaq, Cree, Oji-Cree, Plains Cree. It offers the usual subjects—math, sciences, and the like—but students spend 40 minutes every day in a native language and culture class, where they learn about First Nations history, sing songs, and hear stories. Every morning, students and teachers smudge.

The Aboriginal Education Centre moved in to the Danforth location this summer, from its former site at Dufferin and Bloor. The east quadrant of the city in particular has a large Indigenous population, so this move was intended to make the centre more accessible, says Barbara-Ann Felschow, central co-ordinating principal of the AEC.

The centre was created in 2006, and houses resources and supports for Indigenous students and families, teachers, and non-Indigenous people too. There are three different teams within the centre, each with its own role.

The school support team is comprised of a social worker and child and youth counsellors who visit schools and help students one-on-one or in small groups. The community liaison team works with local agencies and maintains a roster of elders and artists who can share stories with students. And lastly, the teaching and learning team ensures schools have the resources they need, and reviews curriculum documents.

“It’s an experience whereby through opportunities of storytelling, through opportunities of having elders and young people side by side, sharing experiences and wonderings together in that interpersonal way, there’s a synergy of learning and there’s a synergy of understanding,” Felschow says of the decision to move the First Nations school to the AEC site.

In the summer, the Toronto Star reported that some parents were concerned about how long it was taking to find a new home for the First Nations school. The Eastern Commerce site was one option, but some said the building, constructed in 1925, looked alarmingly like a residential school. Renovations and a redesign could cost $40 million, the Star reported, so the TDSB was trying to determine whether building an entirely new school was a better option.

Felschow says that the TDSB conducted surveys and talked to parents to find out what they wanted in their children’s school. Two key things were subway access and green space.

The Eastern Commerce site fit the bill in both respects: it’s close to the Bloor-Danforth subway line, and has a field that can be used for outdoor gatherings and feasts.

Photo courtesy of First Nations Junior and Senior School of Toronto Facebook page.

Photo courtesy of First Nations Junior and Senior School of Toronto Facebook page.

Then the TDSB brought in Two Row Architect, a Six Nations firm, to assess the building and suggest what could be done about the residential-school look—“as you come into the facility, that is striking,” says Felschow.

Two Row came up with some options: more natural lighting in classrooms, improving air circulation in the building, change the façade, improve access from within the school to the outdoors for celebrations, making it more eco-friendly, and using roof space for gardens.

It’s about “looking at, albeit in an urban construct, how you bring nature and organic components into an environment that is quite static and is quite institutional by virtue of design and purpose,” Felschow says.

The TDSB prepared a business plan, including a cost estimate for these renovations, and submitted it to the Ministry of Education. The ministry hasn’t yet said how much funding it might provide for the project.

Meanwhile, Kakegamic is just one semester into his new job. He moved to Toronto this summer, packing his life into a U-Haul and driving down to the city with his wife. His two children, both at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, are looking after the family house.

“I was ready for a change,” he says.

Kakegamic was at the Dennis Franklin Cromarty school for 15 years. Young people who live in small northern communities within the school’s catchment area travel to Thunder Bay and live in a boarding home while they attend. Being away from their family and community can be a great challenge. Since 2000, seven First Nations students have died, several from drowning in Thunder Bay rivers. Six of these students attended Dennis Franklin Cromarty.

An inquest into the deaths wrapped up this summer. Kakegamic stayed in Thunder Bay until then. “I lived it, what they were talking about,” he says. “That was in my heart.”

For a few years, he ran the after-school program, so kids would have a place to go once classes ended each day. “An engaged student is a good student, especially when they’re teenagers,” he says.

“I think it’s important that the education system provides an avenue for any culture to know who they are. And for the First Nations people in Canada it’s very important. We are the first people of Canada. It’s very important that our kids are given that opportunity to know who they are.”

Language is a key part of this.

Since he’s moved to Toronto, Kakegamic hears people speaking their first language—Greek, Italian, Spanish—when he’s at the mall, or on the subway. “It’s beautiful,” he says.

People of different nationalities have a motherland, a hub for their culture and language, he says. First Nations people don’t have that.

“Where do we go if we lose our language?” he asks. “I’ve been telling people we’re at a crisis level. Language is a huge part of any culture. It’s one of the foundations that sustain a culture. So that’s why it’s so important that we have that component in the school.”

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