March 12, 2012
BRENDA STEWART
CATHOLIC REGISTER

TORONTO – There is the poverty, the high cost of food, lack of clean water and acceptable housing, the lack of concern for the people's wellbeing, the high rate of disease and of course the whole situation around the school.

Nobody has the silver bullet that will fix education in Attiwapiskat in northern Ontario.

But that doesn't mean we do nothing. Mother Teresa most often gets credit for telling us that we're not called to be successful. We're called to be faithful.

As a Toronto Catholic District School Board teacher, I've been working with Attawapiskat for 10 years. It started when I was a literacy resource teacher heading up our early reading intervention program.

The principal of Attiwapiskat's JR Nakogee School contacted me. The challenge at his school was and still is raising the literacy skills.

The first step was to bring Attiwapiskat teachers and administrators to Toronto to visit our schools, attend literacy seminars and consult with TCDSB board experts.

Over the years we shared resources, shipped school materials to the community, talked with teachers and visited Attawapiskat.

In 2008 we designed a conference called "Community, culture and curriculum - teaching and reaching students through literacy." Six teachers followed up with a visit to Attawapiskat where we gave workshops for two days.

We learned so much from the people in the community and raised our awareness of life on the reserve.

I returned to Attawapiskat in 2009 and 2010, each time with a team of four to six teachers. We worked with local teachers, sharing our strategies for teaching literacy skills. And we learned more about the school system under the department of Indian and northern affairs. Attawapiskat teachers have made return visits to Toronto.

Last year the Grade 8 students from Attawapiskat came to Toronto for their graduation trip. They spent a day at Our Lady of Fatima School meeting their pen pals and touring our school. Another Grade 8 class from Attiwapiskat will make the same trip in June.

It turns out the education challenges on the reserve can't be separated from the housing crisis.

When the housing crisis made it to the news I asked principal Stella Wesley what we could do to help. She told me all funds from the education budget had been rerouted to deal with the housing crisis. The school was not able to purchase supplies necessary for the second half of the school year.

Our Lady of Fatima started collecting supplies and a friend of the school has persuaded his company to help with shipping them north. The supplies started their journey Feb. 14 (arriving Feb. 24) even though students haven't yet collected all the money to cover the costs.

While the students were doing what they could for their friends in Attiwapiskat, our school received the Witness to Faith Cross. It is touring Toronto schools to help each focus on witnessing to Christ. We thought helping Attawapiskat would be a powerful way to understand what that really means.

Teachers spoke about the situation in Attawapiskat. Students did further research. At our Mass with the cross we showed slides of children in Attawapiskat and included those children in our prayers. Our students filled baskets with school supplies they had brought over the previous two weeks.

For the kids at Our Lady of Fatima, Attawapiskat isn't quite so remote, so strange, so unreachable as it was before.

(Stewart is a teacher at Our Lady of Fatima School.)