Making Education a Priority

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In recent conversations with several First Nation Chiefs in northern Ontario I learned that they are 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.

Then, when I heard the Liberal budget will increase funding by $2.6 billion to improve primary and secondary education on reserves, I realized that all of the work that First Nations representatives here and across the country has resulted in success.

Funding levels in the past were not equal to those of non-Natives in education and when Trudeau lifted the 2% 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 firsthand 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 airplane ride to Timmins. Thankfully, I met some wonderful people who 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 while we attended secondary school in North Bay.

But it was difficult to be away from home at that age, 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 the then brand-new Vezina Secondary School in 1995.

Lucky for me I had discovered some good people who were sober 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 I started to write. There were many people who assisted me on my journey in adapting to life in the greater world. I will forever be grateful to them.

What I realize now is that I should never have had to leave my First Nation at the age of 13 to get an education. I was just too young and many of my friends simply could not deal with all the 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, these young people 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.

That’s why I am very grateful to Prime Minister Trudeau for making First Nation education a priority. I give thanks to all those First Nations leaders who have been working so hard to make this a reality. I am also thankful for the work of Charlie Angus, the NDP MP for Timmins-James Bay and the 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.

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