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On eagles’ wings

As you enter Quinte Christian High School (QCHS) in Belleville, Ontario, you can’t help but notice the Bible text scripted in large letters on the bulkhead, surrounding you on all sides: “Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up on wings as eagles. They shall run and not be weary. They shall walk and not faint.”

Beneath these words, smaller, but no less eye catching are the words:

iki tahsh wiin kaatepweyenimaawaatc kaaTipencikenitc
  takiiwe naapihcikaateni omashkawisiiwiniwaan.
Mii hsa keishinaakosiwaatc taapishkoo mikisiwak
  kaye pimipa’itiwaatc, kaawiin tanoontehshinsiiwak,
  pimohsewaatc kaawiin tanoonte pwaanawi’ohsiiwak!

QCHS’s Ojibwe population is growing, and blessing its staff and student body in ways no one could have imagined.

For several years, QCHS has been developing a special relationship with a First Nation community in the far north of Ontario. The Eabametoong First Nation (Fort Hope) is a community north of Thunder Bay. It is tiny and remote. No roads lead to it and visitors must be flown in by a small plane from Thunder Bay in order to access it.

To the wonder and joy of the QCHS community, this Ojibwe community has entrusted some of its teens to QCHS. Their hope is that at QCHS, these students will gain a quality education and improve their opportunities for success in further education and careers. Recognizing the difficulties youth face in their community, they wish to give them a “fighting chance.”  

How then shall we live?

While honoured, the staff at QCHS feel a bit bewildered that people in the Eabametoong community are willing to trust them with their youth. White Christians educating First Nations youth is not uncharted territory, but it is territory that was historically charted so poorly that it has had devastating results for generations. Just spend some time reading the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and you soon know the damage caused by some of the church-run, residential schools. Recognizing this history, no one is forced to attend independent Christian high schools like QCHS; every student is there by choice.

While the staff at QCHS welcomes these Ojibwe students into classrooms and hallways, they find themselves wondering in ways reminiscent of Charles Colson, “How Now Shall We Teach?” especially as their relationship with this hurting yet persevering community is growing. Parents from Eabametoong have now purchased a house in the Belleville area in which one Eabametoong mom lives with the teens and teachers are beginning to feel the responsibility to not only provide an education but to make QCHS feel like home as well. The staff don’t want to make the same mistakes as those who have gone before them. They don’t want these students to have to “become white” to belong.

Sometimes they do this poorly. For instance, the Ojibwe students have let QCHS’s staff know, kindly, that the Ojibwe version of the school verse, displayed proudly in their foyer, is not quite correct. There are some errors in syntax and grammar.

Another example, becoming more pressing as deadlines draw nearer, involves uniforms. QCHS is introducing uniforms this September. Board, staff and parent committees were prepared for resistance from some students and parents in regards to cost, lack of individual expression and other common complaints. Never did it even cross their minds to consider the impact of implementing uniforms on the First Nations students, all of whom have parents or grandparents who attended residential schools and were forced to don white people’s uniforms in order to rob them of their culture. They also did not consider the painful circumstances they were creating for parents or grandparents in Eabametoong who were making the difficult decision to send their children hundreds of kilometres away to a predominately white, Christian school. With sinking hearts, the QCHS administration confessed their lack of sensitivity to their Ojibwe friends. The situation is not yet fully resolved. QCHS hopes to work with the Ojibwe community, expressing their hearts and hearing concerns in order to find a solution together. They have chosen to live out their relationship and the decisions that come with this relationship together.

Nothing makes the desperate situation
of our First Nations people more real than loving these kids.
And nothing challenges stereotypes and prejudice more
than speaking with them.

Together in prayer

Other times, staff at QCHS makes great steps forward. The English department is currently looking for a new class novel for Grade 12 English. So far, the top choice is Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda, a book about First Nations people by a First Nations writer. Staff members eagerly anticipate the publication of the First Nation’s Version Bible, hoping to use it as a resource in classes and chapels. Artwork from the late Cree artist, Ovide Bighetty’s, Kisemanito Pakitinasuwin – ‘The Creator’s Sacrifice’ will soon hang in the halls of QCHS. This art exhibit, depicting the Easter story in the Woodland Indigenous style, recently toured Canada. QCHS’s Ojibwe students helped to choose some of the prints which were donated to the school.

This past year, QCHS’s journey with the First Nations students became more difficult for staff and students alike. The Eabametoong First Nation, which the Ojibwe students know to be “peaceful” and full of people who are “friendly and kind,” is also a hurting community and like many of the northern Indigenous communities is faced with shockingly high rates of depression and suicide. From time to time, as students from Eabametoong shared that a friend of theirs committed suicide, and they left, once again, to return home for a funeral, the rest of the QCHS community watched them grieve. Staff wondered once again, “How now shall we teach?”

Another day, a student shared that one of her female friends from back home was missing. Thoughts were drawn to the many missing indigenous women in Canada. As staff prayed with the students for their friend, they heard stories of what it’s like to live in fear because you are a woman and indigenous. The kids opened up about racism they’ve experienced, even in the Quinte Mall. How now do we teach?

Student life at Quinte.

After the Easter break, the Ojibwe students returned from Eabematoong sharing the news that their mentor, the one who encouraged them to study at QCHS, was murdered over the weekend. And four more members of their community died from suicide. Teachers wondered how they could possibly make these students sit and answer geography chapter questions or write a unit test when the students’ hearts were breaking?

So staff chose to walk alongside them, gave them leeway in their school work, provided support groups and counselling and made themselves available to talk and listen. Just when it seemed that things were improving, just as there was evidence of some healing, another tragedy struck and this cycle continued throughout the school year.

Nothing makes the realities of First Nation’s people in Canada more real than loving these kids. And nothing challenges stereotypes and prejudice more than being in relationship with them.

Renew their strength, Lord

QCHS’s Ojibwe students carry heavy burdens and have experienced grief and difficulties that baffle the minds of their teachers, not to mention fellow students, but they are articulate, smart, and believe it or not, mostly they are hopeful. They have goals, and they have determination. What’s even more impressive is that they have accepted the responsibility given to them by their people; they have embraced their people’s future. One Grade 12 student, Walker, has told his community that he will be away for 15 years. He needs an education, and he needs some experience in his career. But then he is going back, to live and work in Eabematoong, and build his community up again.

Walker shared with me how important the eagle is to his people. The eagle is sacred as he carries the prayers of the Ojibwe to the Creator. In healing ceremonies, eagles are given special significance because eagles carry the sickness to the Creator for healing. When the people of Eabematoong see an eagle flying above them, they stop and watch. Even in the middle of playing a game of baseball, they stop and watch the eagle carry their prayers to the Creator.

May the Creator lift Walker, and all his peers, on eagles’ wings, renewing their strength so that they can run and not grow weary as they strive to heal and bring healing to their people. And may the Creator also lift the QCHS staff, as they humbly work with their students to prepare them for this high calling.

Mae and Parker Waswa.

Parker and his Gogo (Grandma) Mary Waswa at a tribal council meeting.

  • Renée Hoogstad teaches English as a Second Language at Quinte Christian High School. She is blessed to spend her days with students like Walker Atlookan and the other Ojibwe students as well as students from many other cultures in her work in Cross-cultural education.

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