It was a day of celebration, tradition and possibilities as Seven Generations Education Institute (SGEI) held a grand opening ceremony for its new campus on Couchiching First Nation last Wednesday.
The Fort Frances campus, officially called Niizhwaaching Aanikoobijigeng Gikinoo'amaadiiwigamig, is a state-of-the-art project years in the making.
The campus features nine classrooms for student use, a circle room for traditional ceremonies and meetings, a maker space for use by students and community members, and a digital lab for archiving photos, video and audio recordings. There is also a full-scale commercial kitchen and trades lab for specialized programming.
Officials from all levels of government and several special guests were invited to take part in the opening ceremony.
Following the opening drum song, Seven Generations chairperson Naomi Field welcomed the dignitaries and visitors to the campus and acknowledged the hard work put into making the campus a reality.
Outgoing Thunder Bay-Rainy River MP Don Rusnak praised the dedication of the staff when it came to creating the campus, adding that he felt a personal attachment to the project.
“I live in Thunder Bay, but I am a Treaty #3 member and worked for Grand Council Treaty #3 many years ago and I have family here and a lot of friends in this region,” Rusnak said.
“It means a lot to me and I know it means a lot to the students here and staff and just to see it come to fruition,” he added.
The federal government invested more than $9 million towards the completion of the building, and Rusnak noted that an additional $1 million in funding from the federal government was being provided for equipment.
“I think that is a testament to the staff here and a testament to everyone that worked so hard to make this facility a reality,” Rusnak said.
Fort Frances mayor June Caul was also invited to speak to the crowd and congratulated the staff on a new building that will provide opportunities for students across the district.
“The opening of this new school is a major step forward and into a future that looks brighter than ever before,” Mayor Caul said.
"As a retired educator, it is so important to me that all people, both young and older, be given the opportunity to complete a high school and post-secondary education.
“This beautiful facility will provide a welcome venue for students for many years to come and the tools for educators to effectively teach their courses. Students will enjoy continuing their education here in a smaller, safer Community instead of a far distance from home in a big city,” she added.
Representatives of the provincial government were also invited to take part in the opening ceremony, with local MPP Greg Rickford being joined by his colleague MPP Ross Romano, the Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities.
“[Rickford] mentioned to me last week that this institute is opening today and so I wanted to ensure that I was here,” Romano said.
“This is something that is incredibly important to me,” he added.
“I do look at an institute such as this and all of our indigenous institutes, and I think these are excellent opportunities moving forward for post-secondary education and I think this is fair to say the future of education, especially in certain parts of our province.”
Romano, who hails from Sault Ste Marie, shared that he thought it important to have learning opportunities available in the north to allow students from this part of the province to have access to high quality education while remaining closer to home.
“I want to thank you for all the work and to all of those who have done so much work to build this incredible building for your community, for your people,” Romano said.
“It is incredible and it is important to be able to have apprenticeships, essential skills, First Nation Student Success, trades training secondary school and post-secondary programs all under one roof operating to help young people within this community and other communities across the province to not just get the training that they need but to also be able to get help with their language, to learn more about their cultural background.”
Rickford followed his provincial colleague, and praised the foresight the institution has had in regards to providing education and training.
“I can't think of a post-secondary institute who has put a laser focus on identifying the skills and the trades—and I use those words importantly—for the reality of our workforce and the demands out here in Northwestern Ontario,” he said.
“We have a deficit here of indigenous and homegrown nurses across the region and we want to change that and this is the kind of thing that Seven Generations understood a long time ago and moved forward,” added Rickford.
“So congratulations for those opportunities. We all deserve the chance to benefit from an institution in our community, from our community, that understands our community and is helping prepare future generations to live and work in our communities.”
Rickford also praised the level of cooperation that occurred between the different levels of government in helping to bring the Fort Frances campus to life.
“We believed that this was the future of post-secondary education for Northwestern Ontario,” Rickford stated.
“The work that's been done by both the federal governments successively and provincial governments—this isn't about political stripes, this is about making a contribution to an extraordinary institute for the benefit of this region.”
Denise Dwyer, the assistant deputy minister for indigenous education, was also on hand to say a few words for the opening of the building.
“It is an honour. It is a privilege. I feel like a witness of a milestone event of the opening of this building, when you drive by initially, which is stunning architecturally and so significant in terms of population,” Dwyer said.
“This looks like indigenous education and I have to say it is beautiful. It is amazing to see traditional costume, especially on children, honouring the culture and the language.”
SGEI CEO Brent Tookenay was the focal point for much of the praise and commendation over the course of the event, and received both a certificate from the Minister of Education, presented by Rickford, as well as a traditional cradleboard presented by Laurie Robinson, the executive director and chair of the Indigenous Advanced Education and Skills Council.
Tookenay thanked all of the representatives who attended the grand opening, as well as the board and staff of SGEI, and reinforced the impact indigenous education has on indigenous students.
“For every indigenous student that attends here you're going to have the opportunity to learn your language, practice your culture, live the traditions of our ancestors,” Tookenay said.
"These are the foundational pieces for us as an organization as well as how we identify as the Anishinaabe. We are proud to have you here and we will do our best to make sure that you have every opportunity to know who you are and to bring that back to your communities as a resource, as a person, as a future elder.
“The Anishinaabe have so much to offer in this world and it's an untapped resource, but we're going to start tapping into that for everybody in this area,” he continued.
“We already have started but we're just scratching the surface and that's what this building, and what we're going to do, is about. So I'm excited to be part of this.”
The opening ceremony concluded with another drum song, and was followed by a fish fry lunch and tours of the new facility.