Birch Island expands Shawanosowe School to accommodate daycare, innovation centre

OPEN FOR EDUCATION!—Whitefish River First Nation held a grand opening ceremony for its state-of-the-art daycare facility on Friday, January 24. The $1.5 million centre, built onto the Kindergarten to Grade 6 Shawanosowe School, accommodates as many as 75 young learners and is a key piece of the First Nation’s vision to create a central community hub. photo by Warren Schlote

BIRCH ISLAND – Visions and dreams of a unified, central community hub in Whitefish River First Nation (WRFN) edged closer to reality on Friday, January 24, with the official grand opening of a state-of-the-art daycare centre built onto the Shawanosowe (K-6) School.

“It’s the capstone to our vision for a unified education facility, one system of learning for all our young people,” said WRFN Ogimaa Shining Turtle at the grand opening and ribbon cutting ceremony. 

“Our new school is a state-of-the-art, 4,500 square foot building that is barrier free and meets the needs of our youngest learners,” he said.

Kiki Peltier served as the emcee for the morning’s program and began by calling up elder Marion McGregor to deliver an opening prayer. 

Ms. McGregor spoke about her experiences as a young person attending residential school where she had so many aspects of her culture removed from her life. However, she kept her language and used those skills to return to mino-bimaadiziwin (living the good life) and pass those teachings on to younger generations.

“We are the role models for them. Little children watch every move you make,” she said with a laugh. “It’s up to us to teach them good things.”

Ms. McGregor said she had been living in WRFN for 58 years and said she was proud of the years of leadership that led to this project finally becoming a reality.

Years of leadership is certainly an appropriate label—the work to bring a proper daycare centre to WRFN began in earnest in 1997, nearly a lifetime ago for a certain Expositor reporter.

A year later in 1998, Ogimaa Shining Turtle was working as engineering advisor with the United Chiefs and Councils of Mnidoo Mnising. He worked with WRFN operations and maintenance lead Jeff McGregor to find a building to host a temporary daycare that was within budget. 

At the time, the only option was a prefabricated house. This meant multiple levels on the inside that prevented those with unique access needs from getting into the facility. It was a daycare, but still far from ideal.

In the early 2000s, WRFN administration began working toward a proposal to secure funding for the Shawanosowe School that would include a gymnasium and the daycare facility. Council secured $2.3 million for the school but did not receive support for the gym or daycare facility.

The band set an indoor recreation space as its highest priority and put forth $500,000 of its own funding toward adding a gym onto the Shawanosowe plans when it was built in 2005. Ogimaa Shining Turtle said he has been lobbying the government ever since then to be reimbursed for those costs, but since they were not part of the original funding agreement Indigenous Services Canada has denied those requests.

Immediately past the front doors of the daycare is a central gathering place where the students have open locker spaces along the walls. Ogimaa Shining Turtle said this give the children a sense of ownership and offers a shared space for all users of the facility.

In March 2018, during a particularly intense season of the Little Native Hockey League, Ogimaa Shining Turtle headed to Toronto for meetings about funding for the daycare. In contributions of $500,000 each from the Ontario government, Jordan’s Principle and WRFN itself, the First Nation had finally secured the $1.5 million it needed to build a daycare addition onto the school.

Jordan’s Principle is a policy that ensures First Nations children in Canada have the same supports and opportunities as non-Indigenous children. It is named after Jordan River Anderson, a boy from Norway House Cree Nation in Manitoba, who died at age five after spending his whole life in hospital because the provincial and federal governments could not decide which legislature would pay for needed care for his special needs. 

Because of the deadlock, he never received the adequate care he needed. Jordan’s Principle is about ensuring care is adequately provided, with questions about funding coming second in importance to arranging care in the first place.

Two years later, the centre was now ready for children. Following performances by Redman drum group and a set of singing students from Shawanosowe School, daycare children, employees and band representatives gathered at the front door behind a ceremonial red ribbon. Ogimaa Shining Turtle and a few of the young ones had their hands on the oversized scissors, counted down and officially marked the centre open to the sound of cheers from the gathered community members.

Inside the main entrance is a circular gathering area where the children will leave their outdoor clothes in designated lockers, storage areas that give the children a sense of ownership, according to Ogimaa Shining Turtle.

Immediately to the left is a learning wing for preschoolers. It features student learning areas as well as dedicated staff working spaces. Each learning wing has its own washrooms, complete with toilets that only stretch a short distance off the floor—designed specifically for the needs of the little ones.

The learning wings all have sliding partition walls so the space can be used responsively depending on the needs of the day.

Continuing clockwise is the toddler wing, which is presently overseen by Caitlin Pitawanakwat and Cheryl Shawanda. 

“We’re really trying to embody the feeling of this being like a second home. We want this to be a really warm, welcoming environment here,” said Ms. Pitawanakwat. 

Continuing clockwise, at the far edge of the main gathering area, is a very spacious and open kitchen area that includes some stool seating for children at a centre island. There is an industrial range, dishwasher and no shortage of cupboard space for all the necessary kitchen odds and ends.

“We believe that nutrition is so important for our students, and being able to sit here and be part of the process is fantastic,” said Ogimaa Shining Turtle, noting that provided meals is a key aspect of the daycare. The kitchen is large enough to accommodate potential expansions to prep food for some of the younger Shawanosowe students as well. 

Whitefish River First Nation Ogimaa Shining Turtle, left, stands next to preschool educators Caitlin Pitawanakwat and Cheryl Shawanda during a tour of the new facility.

Next in the circular layout is the infant wing, designed for the youngest children at the daycare. It is similar to the other wards in that it also has a dedicated washroom and play areas tailored to that age group, with the addition of a sleep room designed for 10 small sleeping cots that has blackout curtains to create a dark environment conducive to good sleep.

Completing the circle, the last quadrant of the building is the office and administration area with good window views of the drop-off area. The admin wing has a separate manager’s office, a washer/dryer and spaces for teaching resources and other documents. 

The back of the building opens onto a fenced-in playground that is accessed through the infant and toddler wards, but also has a door from the Kindergarten room in Shawanosowe School.

Ogimaa Shining Turtle is practically skipping during the tour, not trying to hide his excitement at seeing this 23-year project finally reach completion. He said this new facility is exemplary of the community pride that already exists and should continue to be fostered within WRFN. 

The next phase for the revitalization of a strong community hub will be the completion of the elders’ independent living facility for band members aged 60 and older. Applications are open for band members to vie for a one- or two-bedroom unit within the centre. 

Some of the daycare workers are already excitedly making plans for collaborating with the elders’ residence on inter-generational learning projects such as gardening. 

Ogimaa Shining Turtle added that a recreation component of walking and skating trails between the buildings included within the community hub is in the works now, with the results of a $2.3 million grant for that purpose expected to be announced in May. This is to become part of the ‘canopy of learning,’ inviting all the elements of community education and well-being into the centralized hub.

Shawanosowe School principal Daniel Stargratt said he was happy to have the daycare added onto the school because it enhances the continuity of learning.

“It definitely gives it more of a community feel and shows the partnership here with the daycare and the school,” he said.

WRFN’s new daycare is licenced to host a total of 75 children: 10 infants, 15 toddlers, 24 preschoolers and 26 school-age children. The facility began full operations on December 9, 2019.