Wikwemikong High School celebrates 20 years

Wasse Abin Wikwemikong High School current Principal Mick Staruck, left, and the school’s first Principal Chuck Searle prepare to cut the anniversary cake. photo by Giselle Aiabens

WIIKWEMKOONG—On October 17, 1997, after about a decade of planning, researching, and negotiating with what was then the Department of Indian Affairs, the Wasse Abin Wikwemikong High School officially opened its doors and welcomed its first class of students. Last week, on Friday, October 20, the special occasion was marked with a 20th anniversary celebration. The community celebration brought community leaders, members and current high school staff and students together with early stakeholders and proponents, including band councillors of the day, advocates, the first principal and first-year teachers and students.

The celebration, and reunion of sorts, featured a trip down “Memory Lane”—a gallery of memorabilia, with photos, yearbooks, art and awards from the early days of the school up to recent accomplishments and endeavours including those of the robotics team, the business program, the dance program and the annual Rezfest.

Special guests invited to speak about the school were Dr. Lorraine Frost and Dr. Ron Common who were instrumental in the research required to demonstrate the need for a high school in Wiikwemkoong as well as writing grant proposals for the funding required to build the school; the then Director of Education, Grace Fox; the school’s first ever principal, Chuck Searle; and the current principal, Mick Staruck.

The above quilt was part of the gallery of memorabilia on
display for the anniversary.
photos by Giselle Aiabens

Ms. Fox spoke of how the chief and council of the day wanted to see the community’s high school students brought back to the community to be educated in their own school and the need to have an environment where students were able to be themselves and where their culture and language could be a part of their daily learning experience. She recounted the challenges faced including difficult negotiations with the Department of Indian Affairs and struggles with the Manitoulin Board of Education, which stood to lose tuition fees if students were removed from Manitoulin Secondary School.

Despite these difficult negotiations, the Wikwemikong Board of Education was eventually granted the authority to educate their high school students and immediately started an alternative school in the basement of the band office, which Ms. Fox recounted with fondness and a bit of levity telling the audience how some students would answer the phone “alter-NATIVE school.” She also spoke about how, “for the first time, the students had some freedom—freedom to be who they are, freedom to walk the hallways, freedom to go outside, freedom to speak their language” which she was happy to witness.

The alternative school faced its own challenges in the first year including the discovery, in the spring of its first academic year, that the school didn’t have credits and the students were not going to receive credit on their Ontario School Record. After a long process of negotiating and lobbying the superintendent of education, the alternative school was able to grant students the credits for the classes they took. The alternative school flourished and, as the curriculum expanded and enrolment increased, the school was moved to the community hall until chief and council successfully obtained permission to build the high school.

In closing, Ms. Fox fondly recalled how she came back to Wiikwemkoong a couple of years after the high school opened and how proud she felt “to see the massive building, the many programs that were being offered, and the highly specialized people that were taking control” of the school and how proud she feels when she hears others “talking about how well the students are doing and how they thrive in their own environment, amongst their own people, culture, language and everything that goes with our being, as Anishinaabe people.” She ended with the assertion that “there was no better decision than for Wikwemikong to build their own school.”

Two of the night’s special guest speakers, Dr. Ron Common and Dr. Lorraine Frost, who were key proponents for the school and played a major role in writing the proposal to get funding to build the school, provided some insight into their involvement in bringing a high school to Wiikwemkoong.

Dr. Common, who is currently president of Sault College, gave a brief history and background on the decision to pursue a high school for Wiikwemkoong, which he noted began 30 years ago when there was only the Junior School, Pontiac School and a nursery school operating in a house, which wholly amounted to a Department of Indian Affairs schools system that was remotely run out of Sudbury.

The then chief and council decided to pursue a band operated school system which they had to do through lengthy and challenging negotiations with the Department of Indian Affairs. Eventually they succeeded in being granted authority and the Wikwemikong Board of Education and its policies was created as well as a new hub centre for the nursery school aged children. Once the Hub Centre, Junior School and Pontiac School were in place to educate the young ones to Grade 8, the next thing was to build a high school.

Dr. Frost, currently a professor in the School of Education at Nippising University, talked about the research required as part of the process of getting a high school and the requirement to demonstrate a need for a high school in the community. Research included a lot of data collection and analysis in order to support the case. The data, over the 10-year period of the 1970s, revealed a disturbing trend at Manitoulin Secondary School (MSS) of directing First Nations students into the lower academic streams, with only one First Nations student graduating out of the academic stream; and perhaps even more disturbing was the overrepresentation of First Nations students in the high suspension and expulsion rates of that school—almost all suspensions and expulsions were First Nations students despite their only being a small percentage of the students in the school.

Dr. Frost said that there was “not much difficulty demonstrating that the needs of the students of this community were not being met in the provincial school system” and that “the students of Wikwemikong needed their own high school so they could have their own teachers teaching them” which was important given that MSS didn’t have any Indigenous teachers on staff despite that being one of the things the band had been asking for. She stressed the importance that having a school in the community would play, including the sense of belonging that comes with being in one’s own community, as well as not having to deal with the long daily commute and, perhaps most importantly, the benefits that come with having “Indigenous teachers who can bring Indigenous culture, language, history etc. to the classroom.”

Chuck Searle, Wikwemikong High School’s very first principal, took the stage next and, in a very inspirational and moving speech, like all the speakers before him, he emphasized the importance of having a high school in the community in order to better reinforce the importance of the Anishinaabe culture and language, which is so deeply imbedded in the life of the school today.

Mr. Searle described the activity of getting the school ready for students “20 summers ago” from the work of the construction team to the school’s maintenance staff who worked diligently to keep things clean under the constant construction conditions, the administration staff’s role in registering students and answering calls as well as the teaching staff’s preparations in setting up courses and lesson plans.

He painted a picture of the school’s opening day beginning with a sunrise ceremony and smudging of each and every room of the building, which he described as necessary for “purifying each of the rooms from any negativity and imbuing each with a positive energy” the success of which he continues “is seen in the advances of the school today.”

He mused that seeing the awards of today’s winning sports teams gave him pause to look back to the first year boys’ basketball team which “began the season with a 1-0 winning streak” but conceded that the leaderboard was not “good to us as we went on in the season.” He explained however that “what the leader board did not show was the positive energy of our players, their resolve not to give up, and their belief in themselves, and in their team” and as a nod to the school motto, he highlighted the team’s “determination to soar with the eagles.”

In a moving close to his speech, Mr. Searle poetically recounted the opening day as a beautiful fall day in which “one of the eldest members of Wikwemikong, together with the youngest student of Wikwemikong High School parted the deerskin banner, symbolically freeing the school, its staff, and its students to soar to face life’s challenges collectively” and that, “by respecting one another, and by believing in ourselves we truly will embrace life and soar with eagles.”

From the first principal to the current principal, the stage was given over to Mick Staruck, who was the evening’s final speaker. Mr. Staruck began with a witty version of the story of his transition to Wikwemikong High School from Pikangikum First Nation, where he was the school’s principal. He then spoke about the school today, with obvious pride, highlighting its success.

The school, he explained, began with one Grade 9 class and, in each of its initial four years, grew by one grade until there were Grades 9-12. He attributes student input as well as the “tremendous talents of teaching staff” for the continually expanding and evolving curriculum, which has grown to include an Anishinaabemowin Language and Culture program which hosts the Annual New Year’s Eve powwow and often sends student presenters to the annual Anishinaabemowin Teg conference; arts programs in dance and fashion; a robotics program that now mentors other schools; and a business program which has taken students from coast to coast and won entrepreneur competitions. The athletics department has also evolved from that first boys’ basketball team to include track and field, golf, wrestling, archery, badminton and lacrosse to name only a few, all of which require committed teachers who spend hundreds of hours coaching. There is also an assortment of music programs including the entrepreneur music program that helped originate Rezfest, the annual music festival.

Mr. Staruck’s pride in the school is evident and, in particular, he expressed the pride he feels in the students of Wikwemikong High School, who he said he feels “blessed and fortunate” for having known and acknowledges what he attributes as the part they have played in molding him into the person he is today.

The guests at the celebration included a former student who returned to become a teacher at the school. Clifton Wassengeso, a student in the original Grade 9 class, who returned to the high school nine years ago to become the physical education teacher attended the event to reconnect with former teachers and to celebrate the school which he attributes as allowing him “to learn in a safe, comfortable environment” and which he now hopes he can contribute to making a “unique place to learn and have fun” for students while getting their education. Mr. Wassengeso attributes being able to go to a high school in his own community as beneficial for a number of reasons and, in particular, he recalls the sense of pride he felt in having a school in his First Nations community, which he continues to feel as a teacher and works to pass on to his students.

Speaking with Fay Zoccole, the new Wikwemikong Board of Education Director of Education and the celebration’s MC, after the event, it became even more clear that among the many reasons to be proud of Wikwemikong High School, the teaching staff in particular are to be commended for making the school the special place that it is. They continue to receive ongoing professional development and training attaining additional qualifications that go toward their teacher licences. Ms. Zoccole says, with great pride, that the teachers are “very highly qualified and are happy” teaching in Wiikwemkoong noting that some of them have been here for almost as long at the high school and some have been here their whole careers.

Ms. Zoccole also explains that the Wikwemikong education system provides “200 percent education” meaning that, in addition to getting what students need according to the Ministry of Education, they are also learning their ways. As an example, she explains, if a student is learning about waterways, they are taught what the Ministry of Education wants them to know and they are also taught “what water means to us and our stories” as teachers weave traditional knowledge and stories into everything that is taught. Teachers are encouraged to use Indigenous content as much as possible allowing the curriculum to become more relevant to Indigenous students.

Despite all the reasons to celebrate the high school, Ms. Zoccole does however concede that some parents still opt to have their children educated elsewhere and that, among some people, the school, and reserve schooling in general, is thought to be sub-standard. She doesn’t understand why people think this way about the Wiikwemkoong schools which she believes provides good quality education. She maintains that there have been great strides to improve the curriculum over the years and points to the offering of literacy and match coaches as good examples of how the school is working to improve student success. She wants to hear parents’ concerns and says she is open to thinking outside of the box in order to keep community members in the school.

Jillian Peltier, the school’s guidance counsellor and one of the key organizers of the anniversary celebration, echoes the Director of Education’s sentiment about the quality of education provided by the school. Ms. Peltier, who has been with the school since it’s second year, explains that the school is inspected by the Ministry of Education every other year and that it has rigorous standards and criteria to meet in order to continue granting credits and that “all of the staff work hard to make sure that we’re meeting those requirements.”

Both Ms. Peltier and Ms. Zoccole, and likely most of the attendees at the celebration, believe that having a high school in the community is important for student success because it allows students to be surrounded by their culture and their language, providing a comfortable, safe, and supportive environment to learn in. Mr. Searle agrees that this model of education which emphasizes language and culture will help to embed heritage and traditions in students and help them to become proud of who they are and what they’re able to accomplish.

Certainly, Ms. Zoccole says, “the community wants their children to know about their history, their language, and culture and we are supporting that.” She explains that “students come to (Wikwemikong High School) and feel that they belong—that they can see this school is theirs, that it’s got their stories” and because some of their parents have also been students here, there’s a history and a story here for them. That history and story was celebrated at the 20th anniversary celebration and, everyone in attendance at the celebration, looks forward to that history continuing until such time that they can come together again to share more stories of the school’s and its students’ successes.