BIIGTIGONG NISHNAABEG — Excitement and momentum continue to build as the new elementary school in Biigtigong Nishnaabeg First Nation nears the final stages of construction.
Ground broke on the new school back in April 2022.
The new facility includes a swathe of upgrades — including a cultural learning room for land-based programming, a fire pit, a cafeteria, a large gym, library, kindergarten classroom with individual cubbies for young learners, and bigger classrooms in general — compared to the current school, which faces structural problems and lacks nearly as much space.
Dougall Media reporters were given a sneak peek at the inside of the new school.
One highlight in particular was the cultural learning room.
"Kids are going to learn dissection and processing of wild game, whether it’s moose, whether it’s fish [or] fur-harvesting… berry-picking and preserving and processing,” capital housing director Daniel Michano said.
The room is outfitted with stainless steel countertops and sinks, movable group workstations, and a secure chain hoist roller-hanging system, which will all aid in keeping the environment sterile and ensuring that all materials are dealt with safely and handled respectfully.
“It’s given us a lot of leeway to incorporate [traditional knowledge] into the curriculum,” said Michano. “Being an Anishinaabek person, there’s that connection with the land that we always talk about. When you see it happen — when you hear it, when you see it [and] watch it, it comes alive.”
Snaring, trapping, fish-netting, and the moose hunt will all be taught about using these new facilities, in addition to a hide-tanning station on the school grounds.
“Biigtigong Nishnaabeg has its own, locally-developed curriculum,” said director of education Lisa Michano-Courchene. “Our standards for math and language arts remain the same as the province, but we took a step further in exercising our authority to decide what it is about education in general that we want our children to engage in within community school.”
“So, we have our own curriculum, and it’s based around our worldview, our teachings, and there’s this huge emphasis and strong connection to land.”
Michano-Courchene mentioned that students engaged in a feasibility study to identify a wishlist of things that they’d like to see in a new school.
“The biggest thing for me is this design being reflective of what the community and the children want, especially when it comes to an educational institution,” Michano-Courchene said. “It shouldn’t look like an institution. So, it’s really reflective of the natural elements that are important to us.”
Another major upgrade will be the inclusion of a gym, something the current school lacks. In the meantime, students have been using the gym at the Biigtigong Nishnaabeg Community Centre for indoor physical education.
“The community school has never had a gym, ever in it’s existence,” said Michano-Courchene. “So, a lot of times kids would walk to the community hall for indoor phys-ed. They were getting dressed, taking their stuff off, and doing it all again two, three times a week.”
She noted that the new gym will not only prevent constant trips back-and-forth for students but will also accommodate use by two classes at a time.
“I’ve been an educator in the community for almost 24 years,” said Michano-Courchene, “and I went to school in the school that our kids are in now. So, it’s going to be a really significant time — not just for the existing students but for the ones to come and also for the students from the past.”
As of now, there are 75 students enrolled in school at Biigtigong Nishnaabeg’s community school.
The new school will have a capacity of at least 175 students.
Right now, students from grades 9-12 attend school in Marathon but the long-term plan is to eventually extend the new facilities to include high school as well.
Although the project has faced some delays related to a labour union strike and supply chain issues, Finnway General Contractor Incorporated and Biigtigong Nishnaabeg First Nation are aiming for completion around the end of November.
Dan Michano observed that another benefit of the project is that it has allowed Biigtigong Nishnaabeg to draw from their own “labour pool.”
“A lot of [this] is with civil work – civil earthworks, that we have,” said Michano. “So, we have a lot of the in-house capabilities… we’ve got some red-seal carpenters… a lot of labourers… the civil earthworks machines you see moving around the site… a lot of that is local-sourced, so we’ve incorporated that into the project, made it [known] that these services are here within the community, and we’ve been able to achieve and exceed expectations on that.”
“This country is striving for truth and reconciliation and we got in that position from generations of forced education in institutions that we had no say in,” said Michano-Courchene. “And, if there is a way to bring truth and reconciliation back into this country, it’s giving all the First Nations communities an opportunity to keep the kids in their own community and by providing them with the financial resources to do it.”