Sioux North High School celebrates grand opening
Tim Brody - Editor
Sioux North High School (SNHS) celebrated its official grand opening on May 22, marking the completion of a dream years in the making.
“Five and a half years of exhaustive work from start to finish, but probably 10 years before that of a vision to build a better secondary school for kids from Sioux Lookout and kids from the north. The event today was just really the culmination of all of that,” shared Sean Monteith, Keewatin-Patricia District School Board Director of Education.
Dignitary speeches, gift presentations and confetti were all part of the grand opening celebration for the 31 million dollar school, which has more than 500 students and 23 classrooms.
“It’s just fantastic. It’s something that we had been looking forward to for some time,” SNHS Principal Wayne Mercer said of the grand opening.
“This building is really all about reconciliation. You see it in the artwork. You heard it in the speeches… That’s what we believe in. That’s our vision and that’s what we envision this school doing, being part of that healing journey where we bring students from multiple ethnic backgrounds together in a place of understanding and working together, that’s what this school is about,” Mercer said.
Three paintings created for the school by Lac Seul First Nation artist Don Ningewance underscored that point.
The three paintings, which will hang in the school’s front entrance, represent the past, present and future from an Indigenous perspective Ningewance shared.
“I think it’s important for Indigenous people to know what their parents, their grandparents went through. That’s what this represents, that we have to work together. We’re all in this together,” he said.
“I’ve always listened to my wife talk about the residential school experience. I didn’t go to residential school. I can only imagine, through her stories, so really I guess this is her story, I painted her right on the top (of the present painting).”
Ningewance was joined on stage during the presentation to the school of his artwork by two of his four grandsons who attend the school, Joshua Slobozian and Anthony Slobozian. SNHS students Andrew Mckenzie and Jacob Linklater assisted with the unveiling of Ningewance’s work.
Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler shared, “Congratulations and I wish all the success for the students in the coming school year.”
He said students need to be taught about the colonial history of Canada for reconciliation to happen.
He said students need to be taught about Canada’s residential schools and the Sixties Scoop.
“We cannot risk teaching another generation of students down the line the same curriculum we’ve been teaching our children, because as long as we allow schools to teach students about the coloniser’s version of history, we will never even begin to set our foot on that path to reconciliation – it will never happen.”
Mercer stated, “Our students can’t go through the school without learning that. All our students, whether they’re Aboriginal or not, will learn these things.”
He explained, “One of the things that we’ve recently done, this is our second year, is that we have made one of our four compulsory English courses Aboriginal author’s based… All of the content is Aboriginal perspectives, Aboriginal issues, it’s all integrated… Our goal is to teach all students, including our Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal kids about the world around them through an Aboriginal author’s eyes. That’s how we can get to reconciliation and understanding with each other. Some of the other things we have contemporary Aboriginal issues globally, so not just in Canada but around the world in our grade 12 programming. We have Aboriginal art courses. We have Aboriginal history courses.”
Native language is taught at the school, which even has its own school drum.
“Seventy per cent of our student body is of First Nation ancestry,” Mercer said.
Commenting on the school’s new name, Mercer recalled, “Just to watch them (students) work together and work with the different suggested school names and just to watch that happen and how they arrived at Sioux North High School, I love the name, but I love the process even more. It was truly reconciliation in action”
Reina Foster, former youth chief of Lac Seul First Nation, was one of the students involved in the naming of the new building. She shared at the grand opening celebration, “QE has come a long way. I’m a 2016 graduate. I’m really proud to see how far we’ve come.”
Over more than 70 years, thousands of students from across the region have graduated from Queen Elizabeth District High School.
“QE will always be a part of us,” Mercer acknowledged. “Part of our community, part of the heritage that bonds us and brings us together. I know it was hard for some in the community to see that era come to an end. With a positive and growth mindset, see this as not an end, but a new beginning of something that we can do together. Many of the wonderful attributes of Queen Elizabeth High School will be brought with us, and we look forward to weaving them into the fabric of what will make Sioux North High School a special place for our students today and for the future.”
“The education of our youth, their preparation for adulthood to become productive and healthy members of society, is the most precious and valued resource we have,” Mercer told those gathered at the grand opening celebration.
He acknowledged the support from community and area First Nations over the years and asked that support continue.
“Geographically, I would think that we probably have the largest catchment, square kilometre-wise of any school in the province, simply because of where our kids are having to travel from. We’re very unique and because of our uniqueness we’re able to bring people together from many different places, many different thoughts, different treaty areas, come together to be what Sioux Lookout always claims to be, The Hub of the North,” he said.
Lac Seul First Nation Chief Derek Maud offered his congratulations, stating when he toured the building in March he could feel the school was special.
Former Lac Seul First Nation Chief Clifford Bull, now an advisor to the province's Indigenous Affairs minister, said he was proud of what had been accomplished in building the new school.
Lisa Thompson, Ontario Minister of Education shared at the grand opening celebration, “I think it’s incredible to see the efforts that have been made at this school to make sure that every student is represented.”
She added, “I look so forward to seeing what Sioux North does in the future because you are truly leading by example.”
Kiiwetinoong MPP Sol Mamakwa commented at the grand opening, “This is a very unique opportunity for students to come further their education. Again, working together, I think one of the key areas is reconciliation. There’s a key word that’s very unique about this school, again, working together. I think that’s a very promising future for the community of Sioux Lookout and the communities in the north, working together on how can we best educate our people about the history of our people in this area, about the treaties, whether it’s Treaty 5, Treaty 9, and Treaty 3 in this area. I’m glad the Minister of Education was here and also my colleagues from the former government (former Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and former Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Development Mitzie Hunter) were here as well.
A beaded art piece, Mamow Gawiitanokiimitemin / Let’s Work Together, created by the school’s Indigenous Languages classes, was officially unveiled during the grand opening ceremony.
The piece, which has the school’s new logo at its centre, includes representations of the communities the students attending the school come from.
Students Sharilyn Anderson from Kasabonika First Nation and Cruz Kingston from Hudson shared about the piece, which was presented by students Myzel Derouin and Mariah Anderson-Mekanak, both of Sioux Lookout.
Mamakwa said the piece’s name is incredibly appropriate.
Sioux Lookout Mayor Doug Lawrance shared, “Congratulations to all, especially the school board, and congratulations students, both present and future.”
Other speakers included Ogichidaa Francis Kavanaugh, Grand Chief of Grand Council Treaty #3, a video message from Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, Government of Canada, Cecile Marcino, Chair of the Board, Keewatin-Patricia District School Board, and Tanya Talaga, Author of Seven Fallen Feathers.
Brent Tookenay, Chief Executive Officer of Seven Generations Education Institute took on the role of Master of Ceremonies for the grand opening.
The grand opening celebration also included a land acknowledgement by Lac Seul First Nation Elder’s Hammond Lac Seul and Fred Thomas. There was also drumming on the school’s Grandmother drum Mahkwa (bear) by Shaun Quequish (Sioux North High School student), Nathan Hunter, Victor Lyon and Eric Anderson who performed a seven teachings song, the words and meaning of the song are about wanting to have the seven grandfather teachings be part of one’s life.
Comments were also made by grade 8 students Mylo Anderson (Sioux Mountain Public School), Naomi Mousseau (Sacred Heart School) and Cole Trout (Waninitaawingaang Elementary School). Following their speeches, the three grade 8 students, who will be part of the first class to go through SNHS from grade 9 to graduation, showed off their enthusiasm by releasing confetti on the gathering.
Kenora MP Bob Nault commented of the grand opening ceremony, “To see school boards working very closely with Indigenous communities and the leadership to find a way to develop curriculum, move forward on relationship building, and of course until we are able to do more in the communities, this is very much a part of the solution to get good quality education for our young people. I was also impressed with the non-partisan nature of who was there and present… it’s really not about any political party because all of us, we have an obligation to those young people to get them as best prepared as we can for the future and we can’t afford to ever play politics with the education of our kids. Curriculum that is culturally sensitive, one that has a language component, one that recognizes our history and the mistakes we’ve made and how to make sure we don’t repeat them. I think that was all on display. I think the board should be very proud of the work it’s done.”
Former QEDHS principal Steve Poling was in attendance for the grand opening.
He said of the new building, “It has been a dream come into reality. The ceremony today was amazing. There were former students up on the stage showing that students from our area, our region, can become who they are. You’ve got Sol (Mamakwa), you’ve got Alvin (Fiddler)… This is a place where people can come together and learn and grow and eventually build a good life for themselves. That’s the whole concept of the campus concept. I think it’s going to be a great place for kids to learn.”
“It’s bright, it’s modern, the classrooms are equipped with the technology they should have. The cafetorium is an incredible space. The gymnasium is an incredible space. The partnership with Firefly and Confederation College is incredibly important to us. They’re not just tenants next store, they are partners and they’re very, very important to us… that fact that Sioux Mountain is also on the same campus, with pre-school programming, it is really from cradle to post-secondary at 86 Third Avenue,” Mercer said.
Earlier this year the school board shared that the 80,000 square foot building includes:
Many large window and glass features throughout the building allowing for plenty of natural light and open areas.
A sizeable multi-purpose cafeteria/auditorium (or cafetorium) with full dramatic arts capabilities, including telescopic seating, integrated lighting, elevated stage, and a sophisticated sound system.
New, state of the art equipment and spaces for shop classes, science labs, communication labs and food and nutrition programs.
New furniture throughout the building.
A large and bright library with a wall of windows including a variety of seating options and work stations for students.
A gym with a hardwood floor and large windows that fill the gym with natural light.
A new music room with skylights to allow natural light in and all new instruments to support the music program.
The new building is already at capacity. Monteith shared, “The school is engineered and designed to be added onto… it’s more than just a school. Today was about a new beginning.”
Mercer said there are still a few things to finish, “We look forward to those final pieces being done, landscaping, finishing up a few things with the building that need to be remedied. Come August, I fully expect this building will be completely 100 per cent done, grounds included, for the next cohort of kids to come in.”
Mercer said the community has been eager to see the new school building for themselves, “We’ve given lots of tours to different groups… we kind of had a quasi-open house after the March Break and we had a lot of parents come in and have tours… we will in the fall absolutely be able to run more tours for people who haven’t seen it yet.”
Monteith concluded, “Up to this point there have been many media releases and public statements about what this project might represent to the future of the North and our young people; but today I think what is most appropriate is to say thank you to everyone and to simply make the statement…we did it.”