Kenjgewin Teg Educational Institute celebrates 20th anniversary

Gifts of mountain ash trees were presented to KTEI’s “founding fathers/mothers” including Louis Debassige, Chief Joe Hare, Don Cada, Karlene Assinewai (a 20-year veteran of the board), Bill Antoine, Marie Eshkabok and the late Beatrice George. Members of the current board and founding members gather for a photograph following the ceremonies.

M’CHIGEENG—Twenty years ago a dream called Kenjgewin Teg Educational Institute (KTEI) was born with the founding of a First Nation-controlled educational facility and over the past two decades, that nascent dream was nurtured from the unlikely soil of a lone used portable to become the outstanding facility that serves today as a model for First Nation educational programs.

The redoubtable Chris Pheasant served as master of ceremonies for the festivities held in a large tent near the ball field beside the M’Chigeeng powwow grounds, keeping the venue moving smoothly while adding his own inimitable mix of pathos and humour to leaven the proceedings.

“Staataahaa,” he said, looking out over the crowd. Mr. Pheasant noted “the way I was brought up, song is also a prayer” as he introduced the singers at the drum. “This dewe’igan (community drum) was gifted to Kenjgewin Teg,” he said. “It has made its home here in Kenjgewin Teg.” Mr. Pheasant noted that an empty chair had been left at the drum. “There is a seat open, but I am more of hummer than a singer.”

KTEI Executive Director Stephanie Roy delivered the official opening remarks, greeting the assembly. “What an accomplishment,” she said. “Twenty years for Kenjgewin Teg, niishtana siinbboon.”

[pullquote]“I can tell you I’ve had the honour to be part of this accomplishment for the past 10 years,” said Ms. Roy. “What a whirlwind it’s been and boy, time sure does fly when you’re having fun.”[/pullquote]

Ms. Roy thanked the elders, staff and community members who started the day’s events off with a pipe ceremony shortly after sunrise and the singers who provided the welcome song to start off the later ceremonies.

“Joining us today are most of our original founders, our MC who is an amazing man and believer in First Nation education, our board members from eight First Nation communities, our leadership, elders, students and our committed and dedicated staff and our community members.”

Ms. Roy made special note of two staff members in particular, receptionist Veronica Roy and Director of Operations Brenda Francis, who have been with KTEI since its inception. “They are, and continue to serve as, our corporate memory,” she said. “Veronica started from the start at the Wiky band office downstairs, to be exact. Brenda started at Wiky as well, and then moved to the portables in Sheguiandah, eventually moving to M’Chigeeng and the portables that were behind Lakeview School.”

The trip down memory lane, as Ms. Roy termed the beginning of her opening remarks, noted KTEI’s beginnings of providing coordination of educational services for teacher training, professional development, special education, First Nation curriculum resources, counselling and professional development. “The director at the time was Robert Beaudin and he was instrumental in having the foresight to continually expand services that would support student achievement.”

[pullquote]By 1994 there were seven staff at KTEI, but by growing services and programs with each successive year, KTEI has today expanded to 40 staff/instructors. “That is over a 500 percent increase,” said Ms. Roy.[/pullquote]

The original N’da Kenjgewin Teg pilot project morphed into N’dakenjgewinmig, which then merged with Waubetek in 1994 to form what is today KTEI. “It was then that we expanded to offer adult education training and post-secondary opportunities,” she said.

Ms. Roy recalled the “mouse maze” that was the collection of portables which formed that expanded first school building. “They were hot in the summer and in the winter Ontario Hydro loved us,” she laughed.

Union of Ontario Indians Deputy Chief Glen Hare recalled his impressions of those portables. “I remember asking, ‘doesn’t anyone else want this junk?’” he said.

But despite the trials and tribulations, the administration, students and staff persevered through the 15 years that the organization existed in those portables, often requiring staff to near herculean efforts—coping with leaking roofs, snowdrifts literally in the hallways when doors would not close during blizzards while being co-tenents with a wide assortment of wildlife and insects, buzzing chirping and barking beneath, between and above the portable’s walls.

When it came to painting the walls or making maintenance repairs, the duty often fell to staff.

[pullquote]“Our place would not be where it is and this couldn’t happen without our elders and indigenous knowledge faculty,” said Ms. Roy, who she said “have assisted us in teaching our staff and students ever-so-patiently—often reminding us to ‘slow down and be present, a lesson we often forget.”[/pullquote]

Ms. Roy recalled “Gloria McGregor Oshkabasehns, Ron McGregor, Gord Waindubence, Leona Nawegahbow, Alma Jean Migwans, Joseph Laford, Alan Corbiere, Bill Antoine, Mayanne Endanawas, Doreen Trudeau and Josh Eshkawkogan. There were times when our building would have fallen to pieces along with our staff if it weren’t for our elders who are the backbone of this organization.”

KTEI continues to evolve to meet the needs of the First Nations communities that it serves, said Ms. Roy, in large part thanks to the KTEI board. “I can wholeheartedly say that our board is one reason why I continue to love coming to work each and every day,” she said. “I know they genuinely want to advance education and training forward and offer opportunities to our communities and students.”

Ms. Roy saved her last remarks to accentuate the reason that KTEI exists and will continue to survive. “Our vision is to inspire students to find their gifts to further succeed in the world,” she said. “We train upward of 100 to 150 students per year.”

“Bmaadziwn: to nurture confident, resilient learners who are culturally grounded in personal identity and who are active participants engaged in their learning with high aspirations in becoming a good citizen of Mother Earth, living a good life,” quoted Ms. Roy. “Miigwetch.”

Longtime M’Chigeeng Chief Joe Hare recalled the days leading up to the creation of KTEI and the sacrifices that were made to come to the present day, but he cautioned “those sacrifices will be there for a little while yet” as First Nations battle to wrest control of the education of their people away from a federal government whose performance has been lackluster at best to “a system that meets the needs of our band members.”

Chief Hare recalled the efforts of Chief Bill Antoine, Louis Debassige and others who travelled to Navaho country to learn about the successful educational efforts being made there. “It occurred to us that this was just the kind of institution we need,” he said.

They returned to a federal funding regime that at times seemed to run more on patronage and the strategic gifting of bottles of whiskey at Christmas time than on the needs of the community. “It was not a good system,” he said.

Louis Debassige, another of the KTEI founders recalled his experiences, pointing out that in 1980, the first band operated school in Canada was established in M’Chigeeng. At the time, he noted, the prevailing thought was “we can screw things up as well as they can, if not better.”

Today the goals are much higher than operating and managing schools, noted Mr. Debassige. “We want to develop curriculum,” he said, noting that today such goals are being fully realized.

Mr. Debassige recalled the political battles that were required to merge two educational institutions together to form what became KTEI. “I worked myself out of a job,” he laughed, adding quickly that “it was no sacrifice to me, I was ready at that time to move on to Kettle Point. As if they needed another troublemaker down there.”

“You have a legacy to live up to and moreso,” he impressed upon the current KTEI staff. “You have to take it to new ground.” To the students, he exhorted them to be proud of where they have come from and to help build upon the foundations that have been laid down. “That is your history,” he said. “Hold it proudly and tell the world: we can do things ourselves.”

[pullquote]Deputy Grand Chief Hare started his remarks by urging people to sign organ donor cards. “I did,” he said, adding tongue in cheek, “not sure what will be left over when I am done.”[/pullquote]

Deputy Chief Hare noted that he had travelled through life without the benefit of the scholastic credentials available to youth today, but added that the time for that was now long past. “Today you can go and say, ‘this is my diploma.’ We can do that,” he said.

The deputy chief completed his remarks by exhorting everyone to “please get out and vote” in the upcoming elections. “Make your voice count,” he said.

Student Cyndil Corbiere delivered a ground level view of KTEI, noting that she had completed her Grade 12 within its walls, continued on to attain her college diploma and is now finished 54 of the 93 credits toward her university degree in Indigenous Studies at the University of Sudbury.

Gifts of mountain ash trees were presented to KTEI’s “founding fathers/mothers” including Louis Debassige, Chief Joe Hare, Don Cada, Karlene Assinewai (a 20-year veteran of the board), Marie Eshkabok and the late Beatrice George.

The morning’s official ceremonies were completed with the remarks of KTEI’s oldest (in years of service) employee, receptionist Veronica Roy. Among the many humorous stories she related was the unexpected addition of bleeding the oil furnace in the soon-to-be-renovated new building. “The caretaker said that the furnace had stopped and that I needed to learn how to bleed the furnace, because he would not always be around,” she said. “There I was in a pretty little dress and new shirt, bleeding a furnace.”

The dream of KTEI has come a long way since it was first envisioned by its founders, and thanks to the sacrifices made by many, the way to a brighter future has been paved.

“Thanks to all the diplomats who kept this place going,” said elder Josh Eshkawkogan, “making it possible for people to pass through these doors to a better life.”