by Alicia McCutcheon
M’CHIGEENG—Despite the driving rain and thunderstorms overhead, the spirits of those who came to celebrate the grand opening of Kenjgewin Teg Educational Institute (KTEI) last Wednesday morning in M’Chigeeng were far from dampened.
Master of ceremonies and KTEI staff member Debbie Debassige joked that she noticed staff members craning their necks to look at the ceiling, as they had become so used to the leaking ceilings in the school’s original (until just recently) location in “temporary,” trailers at Lakeview School. Checking for overhead leaks had become a force of habit, she laughed.
Kenj (as the school is affectionately known), will leak no longer. The $3.5 million facility is located at the site of the former Sunshine Alley bowling lanes, but after months of renovations and construction, one would never know what was once housed inside.
The facility includes classrooms, a computer lab, library, business incubation centre, student lunchroom (for those famous soup lunches made by staff), meeting rooms, an Anishinaabe Centre of Excellence and even an E-Spirit Café and has quadruple the learning space at 17,000 square feet.
The new school is a far cry from the nine portables strung together, located just behind Lakeview Elementary School, with its state-of-the-art facilities.
Elders in residence, Ron and Gloria McGregor of Birch Island thanked everyone who came for the special day with Ms. McGregor noting that the rain and thunder meant that the day was “doubly blessed by the Creator.”
“The teachings at Kenj are based on the knowledge of the Creator, not just what’s in the books,” Ms. McGregor added. “Students also have to find the knowledge within oneself and know that there’s a bigger plan out there and to trust that there will be life lessons along the way. Always remember with thanksgiving that old building and the lessons learned there.”
The women’s drum group Sheshegwan gave a fitting welcome song, the group comprised of both students and staff of KTEI, and Ms. Debassige reminded the crowd of the school’s beginnings.
“In April of 1994 two organizations, the Waubetek Training Institute and Nda-Gkenjge-Gamig Educational Institute, merged,” said Ms. Debassige. “The merger created a new organization that is now known as Kenjgewin Teg Educational Institute (KTEI). Kenjgewin Teg Educational Institute is committed to the provision of educational services that complement First Nations education delivery in meeting the needs of all learners in school and post-school programs. KTEI is a non-profit incorporated organization that serves a membership of eight First Nation communities: Aundeck Omni Kaning, Constance Lake, M’Chigeeng, Sheguiandah, Sheshegwaning, Sagamok, and Zhiibaahasing First Nations.”
“The Institute began with five staff and today has a complement of over 18 personnel, plus many contractual staff,” she continued. “KTEI’s primary function is to provide educational initiatives to its member population of over 6,800 people.”
Assembly of First Nations regional Chief Angus Tolouse was also on hand to extend his congratulations, speaking eloquently in Ojibwe.
“I extend great praise to the staff of Kenjgewin Teg,” he said. “For those of us in leadership positions, we can’t get these ideas to fruition without the excellent staff in these organizations.”
M’Chigeeng Chief Joe Hare also offered his congratulations and reminded the audience that Waubetek Business Development Corporation played a very helpful role in helping to form the idea of establishing a training institution for the First Nations people of Manitoulin and the North Shore.
“There is a committee of three who deserve honourable mention: Lewis Debassige, Ron Common and myself,” the chief said, also noting Robert Beaudin, former executive director at Kenj. “We gave an extra push to recognize a grand plan for a training institute on Manitoulin.”
“M’Chigeeng First Nation has been very supportive and contributed $250,000 toward this building,” Chief Hare added. “I had a picture in my mind that someday we would have a training institute like this for First Nations people on Manitoulin. We set about this idea and it has evolved to what we see here today. I’m pleased to have been a part of this when it was just a gleam in our eyes.”
The chief noted M’Chigeeng’s “great transformation” with such projects as the Great Spirit Circle Trail visitors’ centre (that opened officially the following day), Weengushk Film Institute, the Wind and Solar Energy Institue, the wind farm project (MOther Earth Renewable Energy) and the new KTEI building.
“To get things done of this magnitude is not easy,” he added, noting he has entered into discussions with Shingwauk University in Sault Ste. Marie with “a dream of having a similar arrangement in M’Chigeeng. I ask all of the institutions present to join together to pursue this idea.”
“I mention it because I see some government people with deep pockets here,” Chief Hare laughed. “One day M’Chigeeng will be the centre for excellence in training.”
Anna Marie Abitong, chair of KTEI’s board of directors, spoke of Kenj’s commitment to delivering First Nations-based education on-site.
She explained that the need for a new facility was prompted by a feasibility study in 2004.
“We had 9,600 square feet in nine portables, all joined together,” Ms. Abitong explained. “The facility was overcrowded, unfinished and provided health and safety concerns. It was not adequate for current or future learning. It was substandard.”
“The new facility will have direct First Nation involvement by First Nations people,” she added.
Chief Shining Turtle of the Whitefish River First Nation, and Tribal Chair of the United Chiefs and Councils of Mnidoo Mnissing, reminded the crowd of the “stark facts on education.”
“In 2010, a study found that we have the lowest high school education rates of any group in Canada and of those graduates, we are less likely to go on to post-secondary education yet we are the fastest growing population in the country,” he said. “There are an estimated 460,000 Aboriginal youth under the age of 20.”
“Where are we today? In a facility of hope for the young people who have a dream,” Chief Shining Turtle said.
The chief then read a speech sent that morning by Assembly of First Nations national Chief Shawn Atleo.
“I have learned that Kenjgewin Teg means ‘a place of knowledge,’ a place where Anishnaabe came together to create an outstanding model of Indigenous community-based education for our people,” he wrote. “Self determination through education was envisioned in 1972 in Indian Control of Indian Education. Today we continue to express a vision of First Nation control of First Nation education developed by our members of our Chiefs Committee on Education to: Nurture First Nations learners in linguistically and culturally-appropriate, holistic learning environments that meet individual and collective needs, ensuring that all First Nations people have the opportunity to achieve their personal visions within lifelong comprehensive learning systems.”
Chief Atleo cited Verna Kirkness and Ray Bernhart’s “four R’s that are essential to First Nations learning”: respect for First Nations cultural integrity; relevance to First Nations perspectives and experience; reciprocal relationships; and responsibility through participation and noted that KTEI “exemplifies these four R’s.”
Union of Ontario Indians (UOI) Grand Council Chief Patrick Madahbee noted the various federal and provincial funders who made the Kenj dream a reality, and said “chi-miigwetch” to them. “It’s a testament to the building of economy in this area.”
“We are educating our future leaders while contributing to the area’s economy,” he added. “This will be of benefit to everyone on Manitoulin ’cause that’s how economy works. I commend everyone and am looking forward to the good things it will produce here.”
UOI Deputy Grand Chief Glen Hare said he remembered when he was approached as chief of M’Chigeeng for some property to “put their dream on.”
“I remember Alfie (the late Alfred Debassige, long-time band administrator) saying, ‘What did we do? I think they just brought us something they didn’t want in Sudbury’,” he laughed, remembering the day the portables were delivered.
“I think about the residential schools and, yes, our language was taken from us and we were told we would never see schools in our communities,” the deputy chief said. “It’s so nice to see youth come up and grab their certificates and come back to work for us.”
Wikwemikong Chief Hazel Fox-Recollet was also on hand to share her congratulations, saying she hoped her community could once again partner with KTEI.
KTEI executive director Stephanie Roy told the group that for 2010-11, Kenj had over 100 students enrolled and this June will see 60 graduates—the highest number ever.
“We are helping students to honour their gifts,” she said. “The staff and faculty work day in and day out with these students. We can root for you and support you, but you need to show up and put in the hard work required,” Ms. Roy said, addressing the students.
“Here our staff work hard and with dedication, they’re always giving 110 percent,” she continued. “Today is indeed a very special day, raining or not. Everything we’ve set out to achieve in the past 20 years is all right here. We look forward to working with all of our communities. The end is here and we can see what a beautiful facility is.”
“The encouragement I have received from staff and students has been overwhelming,” said Crystal McCauley, student council president. “We’re like a family here. We cry and laugh together and support one another through good times and bad. Being one of those stats, I’m very grateful for Kenj—I am now a college graduate!” she said, tears streaming down her face.