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Toronto First Nations school delayed by worries about getting it ‘right’


A year after the Toronto District School Board agreed to open a unique First Nations school from kindergarten through Grade 12 at Eastern Commerce Collegiate, worried parents say building has not started, funding has not been found, and it’s unclear it will be built on that site at all.

Yet part of the delay comes from the surprise discovery that the stately 1925 building looks to many like a dreaded residential school — and would need a $ 40 million re-do, inside and out, to become a respectful, welcoming hub of indigenous learning.

As a result, the board has decided to see whether it makes better sense financially to simply build a new school designed from the start for indigenous learning, said Director of Education John Malloy. The community has suggested that would include space for drumming and smudge ceremonies, green space for nature study and circular spaces for learning.

“I’m sure it’s hard not to become impatient, but we value the community’s vision of an ‘indigenized’ learning environment, and we’re trying to figure out the best way to get there together,” Malloy said in an interview Tuesday. “No delay has been intended.”

But the slow timeline has frustrated some parents at the current First Nations School of Toronto, a small elementary program that teaches Ojibwe and cultural perspectives. The program is spread over three floors at Dundas Junior Public School and has long been deemed in need of a new home.

“I want people to understand how urgent this is; after Grade 8, indigenous students aren’t getting what they need so they end up dropping out,” said Shannon Judge, co-chair of the parent council at First Nations School of Toronto and mother of Raven, 9, and Rayne, 7.

“I really thought we were on track for Eastern Commerce, that it was just a matter of finalizing plans and getting shovels in the ground. This has been talked about since 2010, and now it’s 2016 and we’re talking about taking another few years — it’s ridiculous.”

It has been a year since trustees agreed to expand their program into what would be Ontario’s first public school with an indigenous focus from kindergarten to Grade 12, in a newly “indigenized” home at Eastern Commerce, pending funding. Board officials will submit business plans to Queen’s Park Friday for the school at several possible locations, including one in the West Donlands near Cherry St. and Mill St., close to a planned cluster of aboriginal health services.

Malloy said presenting several possible locations could boost the board’s chance of having one approved.

This alarmed First Nations parents like Judge, who have long wanted it at Eastern Commerce, on a six-acre lot near the Danforth subway line.

“I was really shocked,” she said. “I don’t understand why they’re talking about other options.”

Barbara-Ann Felschow oversees the project as central coordinating principal for the TDSB’s Aboriginal Education Centre. She said she hopes the new school will be in the same building as the centre, with all its resources for training teachers and students, and bringing the community in for drum socials, moccasin workshops, language lessons and, more recently, panel discussions on issues such as murdered and missing indigenous women.

“If the Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls to action are to be taken at face value, it’s important to design a school keeping in mind what is respectful, and what is distinctive,” said Felschow.

The TDSB’s Aboriginal Education Centre is swamped by pleas for support from indigenous students, who say their public school teachers often have no clue how to teach their culture and history, said York University professor Susan Dion, who is co-chair of a steering council on the new school.

“Getting our kids successfully through high school is one of the biggest challenges that confront our community, and this school is a direct response to that need,” said Dion. “They need a school that is reflective of indigenous world views. And until their needs can be met by the whole system, this is critical.”

TDSB vice-chair Jennifer Arp insisted Tuesday that “the board is as committed as ever to making the K-12 First Nations school a reality. We’re trying to move as fast as possible, but we also need to take the time to get this right, because that’s what our students deserve.”

TORONTO STAR | YOURTORONTO