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Voices ᐋ ᐄᔮᔨᐧᒫᓂᐧᐃᒡ

Learning in a dangerous time

BY Xavier Kataquapit Jun 5, 2020

An entire new generation of graduates from universities, colleges, secondary schools and elementary schools are moving ahead with their lives. This time of year is very special for First Nations, particularly in remote communities. 

Organized education is a relatively new thing for my people, considering that less than a century ago most of my ancestors were only involved in learning about surviving on the land. My generation was one of the first to have a proper, modern education in Attawapiskat although we had to attend secondary school back in the 1990s in cities to the south. My parents believed in education and graduation day was a big deal for everyone. 

But graduations are not happening in their traditional settings in this pandemic-affected world. For the past few months, education has had to adapt. Students are learning through online instruction. None of this has been easy for students or teachers as this was a development that happened during an emergency very quickly. 

Still, students are graduating and moving on to greater things. It is important to wish them all the best as they work towards their dreams. In my own family and among my friends up North there are so many success stories as my people develop careers and grow to become our new generations of leaders. 

I am so proud of my niece Brianna Wesley, who recently graduated with a Bachelor of Social Work from Nipissing University in North Bay. She is looking forward to developing a career and giving back to our home community. It is exciting for me to know that my other niece and Brianna’s sister, April Wesley, had already graduated from an Aviation Technology program at Canadore College and has secured a position with Thunder Air in Timmins.  

I am reminded that getting a good education starts at home. These two women are the daughters of my sister Janie Wesley and her husband Brian Wesley. They have always taken a great interest in their children’s education and encouraged them to dream big. All my siblings have been great at encouraging their children to get an education. 

Much of that is based on the direction of our parents Marius and Susan. They believed in school as a path to a good and satisfying life. They also made sure we understood the traditional and cultural teachings of our ancestors. We all speak Cree and so do my siblings’ children and grandchildren. We all walk in two worlds and to me that is about as good as it can get. 

Congratulations to all students and thanks to all their teachers for making sure our systems of learning have continued. This has been difficult for many people, but I know that through the hard work, dedication and hope that lives in people we are moving ahead. 

I give thanks to the federal and provincial governments that have decided not to send children back to school during this pandemic. The world’s expert virologists and epidemiologists are saying that it could be a year or two before things will get back to anything we know as “normal”. This highly contagious virus means that educational institutions are not safe environments for students and teachers. 

 It is normal that school boards and education managers want to get everyone back into classrooms. But the hard facts show that this is dangerous at this point and could be for many months to come. We have not seen the end of the first wave of this pandemic, and there will be more to come. Real social distancing is almost impossible in education buildings. This virus travels primarily in the air and putting a lot of people in close contact is a very bad idea.

Let’s not sacrifice our students and teachers. We must ensure we are over the worst of this pandemic first. If we go back early and people die because of that, we will forever regret our choice. Our schools, universities and colleges are places of higher learning, not places to spread a deadly disease. 

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Xavier Kataquapit is Cree from Attawapiskat First Nation on the James Bay coast. He is a writer and columnist who has written about his life and Indigenous issues since 1998.