A new school with a special focus on Cree language instruction is nearing completion on the Constance Lake First Nation.
With a $10.3 million dollar contribution from Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) and an additional $1.4 million from the First Nation, the school will accommodate approximately 400 students from kindergarten to Grade 12.
Located 300 kilometres northwest of Timmins and 10 kilometres north of the Trans-Canada Highway, Constance Lake First Nation has 1,400 people living on reserve. They have been waiting 25 years or more to see their own school built and a culturally based curriculum begin to be implemented.
The modern school with a tipi-style front entrance leading into a circular foyer will be completed in November 2004. But because elementary school classes run from September to June, Constance Lake children in grades 6 to 8 who attend school in the town of Hearst 40 km northwest of the reserve will not enroll until September 2005, in order not to disrupt their school year. Students in kindergarten to Grade 5, who currently attend an existing school on reserve, will enroll at the same time. Semestered students in grades 9 to 12 will start their second semester in the Constance Lake school in February 2005.
Ken Neegan is a band councillor and the adult education and training co-ordinator at Constance Lake.
He said the education committee is working on ways to include Native content in their social studies and literature programs.
The committee is also searching for storybooks and textbooks by Aboriginal authors and educators.
Neegan said the one of the goals for the school is to recruit an all-Native staff, including students from the Aboriginal Teacher Education Program at Queen's University.
"The other thing of course, I guess you'd be well aware in every First Nation, the thrust for the education authority is to have all staff that are Native people.
"So that's what we're striving towards. It's not always easily accomplished, but again we're building capacity; we're encouraging Native people to go for their training in the teaching field as well," said Neegan.
Students will be exposed to Cree, which will be spoken by the teaching staff throughout the school day. There will also be Native language classes, which are already offered in the K-5 school. Neegan said a language immersion program might some day become a reality.
"I think one of the things that would be a dream that we might want to have in the future is to have a complete immersion-type program at the early ages and graduate to a more bilingual type of program in the later years as you go along. Apparently, there are other First Nations working on those types of projects and I think they've been successful. I think we would like to work towards that in the future, but currently I don't think we can accomplish that within the next year or something," he said.
Although there are limitations in the kinds of programs that can be offered by the reserve school, Neegan said there will be continuing efforts to bring out the best in their students.
"I think the challenge, like in all First Nations communities, is that you don't have the large numbers that high schools do have in larger centres.
"So there's going to be a certain limitation in terms of variety of programming, but I think we have to work through a process with the community to ensure that we focus on our ... First Nation people's strengths," said Neegan.
"Certainly we want a strong phys ed program ... we have some good artists and people who are talented musically as well ... We're going to try bring in Native artists as well as to promote Native type of art work and the Native type of music, where you have drumming and singing."
A tuition agreement signed between INAC and the municipal education authority in the mid-1960s expires in December 2004.
By that arrangement INAC paid for an extension onto Hearst schools in rder to have Constance Lake students accommodated. But it also delayed prioritizing the band's application for its own school until the agreement had nearly run its course.
On July 11, 2003, the First Nation finally received written approval from INAC for a new school, which allowed funding to flow. On Oct. 24, 2003, a sod-turning ceremony was held to mark the beginning of construction.