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Warning: This story contains details that may provoke distress or trauma in some readers.

You may have heard about the Fallen Feathers, seven students who left their First Nations in the North for high schools in Thunder Bay, Ont., and never returned home.

Between 2000 and 2011, teenagers Jethro Anderson, Curran Stang, Paul Panacheese, Robyn Harper, Reggie Bushie, Kyle Morrisseau and Jordan Wabasse died while attending school in Thunder Bay, hundreds of kilometres away from their families. Bodies of five of the students were found near waterways, two others in their homes. All the deaths were ruled accidental or their causes undetermined by Thunder Bay police in investigations many criticized as mishandled.

These were the young people named in a 2015 provincial investigation called the Seven Youth Inquest. The eight-month probe made headlines and revealed the dismay of Indigenous communities who believed police investigated the incidents with apathy. In the end, the inquest made 145 recommendations for all levels of government, the police and Indigenous organizations.

This is the story of what comes after: of the students in Thunder Bay now and the grassroots serving them.

Almost a decade later, all the inquest recommendations are either completed or progressing, creating better conditions for students through better screenings for boarding homes and increased services for health care, mental health and wellness. There is also more co-operation between Thunder Bay, Ontario and Ottawa regarding Indigenous education in the North.

But challenges remain: many 13- and 14-year-old students still leave their homes and families for places like Thunder Bay and Sioux Lookout to attend high school, a tradition that has continued for generations. Graduation rates in northern First Nations were improving before the COVID-19 pandemic. But now, some who returned home for the pandemic chose not to go back when schools opened, grinding down the momentum of the slow-moving student success for First Nations.

In the schoolyard of DFC are a tipi and a basketball court paid for through a Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment grant. Photo by Matteo Cimellaro / Canada's National Observer

Chapter 1: Leave home an adolescent, return as an adult

It's the Friday before March break at Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School, near Thunder Bay’s city centre. The school is known as DFC among dozens of First Nations who send their youth hundreds of kilometres away for a high school education.

This is the story of what comes after: of the students in Thunder Bay now and the grassroots serving them. #Reconciliation #TRC #ThunderBay

Spring break will be the last time students see their families until summer vacation. The school is relaxed and already mostly empty. Some students have caught flights back to their communities. For many, the distance between home and school is greater than the distance between Ottawa and Toronto, but with no highway artery or bus tickets to get them home. Instead, they must fly.

The DFC students drop their duffel bags off in the traditional room, a quiet room used for prayer, as they arrive. They will head to the airport after school for flights back to their northern communities. Some will transfer at Sioux Lookout, 400 kilometres north of Thunder Bay. Others are from First Nations that booked charter flights directly home.

Teachers and principals joke with the kids in the hallways. Students sit in home ec or shop class eating bannock prepared by Elder John, one of several school elders. Students play games in the gym like a family barbecue: throwing horseshoes, playing spike ball and languidly shooting hoops.

The choice to leave home isn’t really a choice. Every year, hundreds of students leave to pursue their education because schools on their First Nations often don't go beyond Grade 8 — Grade 10 if they are lucky. Students fly to Thunder Bay, Sioux Lookout, Dryden and Timmins, and live with boarding parents or family if they have an auntie living off-reserve.

Some students are barely in their teens when they leave home. They might not have even hit puberty yet. They won’t live at home year-round again until at least 17, and often later if they choose to attend college or university.

Elder John, one of DFC's resident elders, routinely makes bannock for the school community. He's there for students, particularly during times of crisis. Sometimes he will sit with them for hours before they are ready to speak, he said. Photo by Matteo Cimellaro / Canada's National Observer

In the staff room, Greg Quachegan, the school’s vice-principal, introduces me to Derek Monias, a 19-year-old Grade 12 student in a white shirt and red tie, the high school’s colours.

It’s a fitting outfit for Monias, who is DFC’s school chief. He said he’d change before catching the flight back to Sandy Lake First Nation, but he joined two of his friends in the formal wear for the fun of it.

It’s not the first time Monias has dressed up. Three months earlier, he interviewed Hollywood star Ryan Reynolds for his media studies class while wearing a black sweater and a white, collared shirt. The interview went viral on social and sports media after Monias lobbed an unscripted question about Reynolds' interest in buying the Ottawa Senators.

“If you told me that taking media arts would’ve led to interviewing Ryan Reynolds, I would have never believed you,” he said.

Monias is telling the story in the teacher’s lounge, perhaps an allusion to his future self. He said he would love to become a teacher. “Who knows, maybe one day I might come teach here.”

Quachegan, the vice-principal, is surprised. “A teacher? I didn’t know that. Great job.”

“Thank you.”

“You would be a great teacher.”

“Thank you. I definitely want to help inspire students because my main goal is to inspire youth to see that they can accomplish anything they set their mind to,” Monias said.

This is part of the trade-off of coming down to get an education in Thunder Bay. On one hand, there are risks associated with leaving home so young: homesickness, anti-Indigenous racism and greater access to drugs and alcohol. On the other hand, at the high school, there is opportunity. Monias speaks about sports teams and different clubs like photography. His cousin, Harmony Fiddler, an emerging artist, has received training and education in fine arts and even showed one of her works in a Thunder Bay art gallery. DFC is a good place for an artist: several original works of renowned painter Saul Williams line the hallways like a gallery of inspiration.

Artist and DFC student Harmony Fiddler, 20, poses in front of her favourite painting that hangs in DFC's hallways. Photo by Matteo Cimellaro / Canada's National Observer

Still, Monias feels blessed to have been able to attend school at home until he was 16. Sandy Lake’s high school goes up to Grade 10, allowing him to remain in his community longer than some of his DFC peers. It helped him strengthen his bond with his family and deepened his support network. When Monias did leave home for his education, his family supported him.

“I don’t think [my parents] would have fully supported me if I was 14 because that’s too young to leave,” Monias said. “You need time to spend with your parents in your teens and not be away from them eight months of the year.”

Monias believes students should control their education and decide when they want to leave their community to chase opportunity and independence because “everyone is different.”

“When they do it on their own time … their success goes way higher,” Monias said. “And I would make a push to have Grade 12 offered in the rez because they might not be ready to leave yet.”

Monias has friends who weren’t ready to leave home at 16 and had to drop out for a year before they returned. Sometimes, students never come back. High school dropout rates for northern communities remain high. Only 45 per cent of First Nations youth aged 20 to 25 living on reserve have diplomas, according to a Statistics Canada’s 2021 data report.

After the inquest, graduation rates were slowly increasing. But then the pandemic hit, stalling the trajectory, said Dobi-Dawn Frenette, education director for the Northern Nishnawbe Education Council, the non-profit organization established by First Nations in the North that runs the school. Communities struggled with internet connectivity issues, overcrowded homes and a lack of safe drinking water and affordable food sources. Many students had to wait until two or three in the morning to do their work to access an internet connection.

In the wood shop at DFC. Photo by Matteo Cimellaro / Canada's National Observer

“If you're in a home that's overcrowded and you don't have adequate connectivity, how do you engage in remote education?” she asks.

Frenette breaks it down like this: in a community of 500 where services are already stretched, you suddenly return 25 youths back to the community and leave them there for three years. Some students went home during lockdown and never returned to school.

“There are some students [who] may have been in Grade 11 [when the pandemic started], and now, you're 21,” she said. “Maybe you started a family, maybe you started working, right?”

Students also came out of the pandemic with a three-year gap for dental care, counselling and other health services, compounded with existing mental health challenges, she said.

For First Nations, the suicide rate is more than three times the rate among non-Indigenous people, and previous reports have found the rate for remote First Nations is up to 50 times higher than non-Indigenous suicide rates, according to a 2019 report by Statistics Canada.

Combine service gaps with the challenges of distance education in remote communities with limited access to reliable internet and computers, and it’s easy to see how student outcomes hit turbulence for fly-in communities.

“It's going to take a little while for us to get back on to those increased graduation rates,” she said.

Student's jingle dresses, a regalia for healing, wait to be blessed by DFC's resident Elders. Photo by Matteo Cimellaro / Canada's National Observer

Chapter 2: Thunder Bay

When students leave their home communities, they often confront homesickness, culture shock and even racism in the city where they’ve suddenly become a visible minority, surrounded by a thick air of stigma and stereotypes that often follows them out into the community. Indigenous students in Thunder Bay relay stories of being followed in stores and having curses and trash thrown at them on the street. The city’s racist reputation has many Indigenous parents worried about their children leaving home to attend school there.

In an effort to ease the tension, DFC teachers have created Wake the Giant, a social campaign and music festival orientation, in an attempt to have local shops welcome Indigenous youth rather than look at them with suspicion.

Skyler Oombash, a young political leader in Cat Lake First Nation, attended high school at DFC over a decade ago, when students like Kyle Morrisseau, the grandson of the Anishinaabe painter Norval Morrisseau, were going missing.

Oombash recalls that time vividly. He went to school with Kyle, one of the Fallen Feathers. Oombash remembers sitting across from him in art class at DFC, the two of them taking turns drawing each other’s faces.

“That’s how I remembered him,” Oombash said.

The next week, Kyle was gone.

Oombash credits his boarding home parent, a French-Canadian woman who was an incredible home cook, for helping him, his roommate and his brother finish school.

His previous boarding home had lasted two weeks. There were two bedrooms with four students in each. The fridge door was locked and the bedroom window was caulked shut, allowing for no air on blistering September evenings. In an act of resistance, they chipped at the window until it opened to let the breeze in.

“We got major shit from that guy. That’s the situation we lived in,” Oombash said.

If Oombash had not switched boarding homes, he would have dropped out.

Now, Northern Nishnawbe Education Council has a dedicated boarding home co-ordinator, a position created around the time of the inquest, to provide oversight for boarding home parents.

But Frenette notes that unless students speak up about issues with boarding homes, they won’t know to step in.

For some, it’s not just bad boarding parents but Thunder Bay in general that is tainted by unexamined anti-Indigenous racism.

Travis Hay is a settler researcher born and raised in Thunder Bay. He’s somewhat of a scholar of the city and a historian of settler colonialism in Canada. He’s probed deep into the consciousness of Thunder Bay and believes the city is hostile to self-reflection into the anti-Indigenous racism revealed by the Seven Youth Inquest.

“I don't think that people who live in Thunder Bay know the history of the land under their feet,” he said.

He believes the city sees First Nations arriving from the North as a burden — just another influx of a “problem population” to manage.

“[Non-Indigenous people] get very defensive and rely on this discourse to say, ‘Oh, we tried hard, we just have problems with these populations,’ never thinking that we might be the problem ourselves.”

Bannock and fried bologna: two delicacies of the DFC community. Photo by Matteo Cimellaro / Canada's National Observer

Chapter 3: Leaving home for generations

Critics of northern Ontario’s education system say the current model shares some resemblance to residential schools. For example, students still need to move away from their families and home communities for their education.

However, the system is now Indigenous-led and focuses on language, culture revitalization and creating what Monias, the part-time talk show host and aspiring teacher, calls “a home away from home.”

Still, Sharon Nate, education director for Matawa Education Council, another Indigenous high school in Thunder Bay, is all too familiar with the repercussions of leaving home for high school. She wonders why children are still being forced to do so in order to receive an education.

Her mother was sent to Pelican Lake Residential School in Sioux Lookout. The school was shut in 1978 and later torn down and rebuilt as DFC’s sister high school in Pelican Falls, run by the Northern Nishnawbe Education Council.

Both Nate and her son had to leave their communities for high school. Her granddaughter, who hasn’t hit puberty, is set to do the same in a few years. Three generations after her mother was forced to attend residential school, Nate's family members are still leaving home to pursue a basic education. “Why does that have to happen?” Nate asks.

Frenette, the education director at Northern Nishnawbe Education Council, speaks to the problem by recalling one of the most critical moments in her career.

She was in Martin Falls, a First Nation within the Matawa Education Council, working on a school curriculum with Chanie Wenjack’s sisters. Wenjack froze to death in 1966 trying to get home after escaping residential school and is the subject of late Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie’s Secret Path.

The Wenjack sisters told Frenette the story about each year when the plane would arrive to take the kids to high school. The families would walk down to the dock, and all the youth would get on the plane. After a goodbye, the students would leave.

“Afterwards, everybody would just sit there, and there was a sadness that hung over the community,” Frenette said.

“I thought of many things about how it must feel for students to leave a community. But I never thought of what a community without youth would feel like.”

If you are thinking of suicide or know someone who is, there is help. Resources are available online at crisisservicescanada.ca, or you can connect to the national suicide prevention helpline at 1-833-456-4566 or the Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868. First Nations people, Métis and Inuit can also reach out to Hope for Wellness at 1-855-242-3310 or the Kamatsiaqtut Help Line at 1-800-265-3333.