Seven Generations Education Institute's (SGEI) new campus played host to an assortment of dignitaries and VIPs during its grand opening last Wednesday, but the presence of one person not at the event was acknowledged many times over.
Delbert Horton was the founder and long-time supporter of what is now Seven Generations, originally the Rainy Lake Ojibwe Education Authority. He passed away in Dec. 2018 and the new campus was one of his goals.
Several of the dignitaries who were invited to speak at the campus' opening took the time to acknowledge Horton and the impact he had on indigenous education in Northwestern Ontario and around the world.
“This has been a huge endeavour for us,” said SGEI chairperson Naomi Field.
“It's been a vision for a long time, a vision of Delbert Horton who I have to acknowledge and recognize within this welcoming speech. He provided us guidance for many years. It started in the back of his blue pickup truck and it grew to this, what we see here today,” she added.
Field noted that the board was committed to Horton's goal of incorporating indigenous learning into the curriculum of all of their First Nation Programming.
Laurie Robinson, the executive director and chair of the Indigenous Advanced Education and Skills Council, praised Horton's dedication to improving indigenous education.
“You know what I see here today? The work of late Del,” Robinson said.
“A lot of this is his vision and his board that supported him. They built first, they invested in community and programs. They used what they had and now they have a fantastic facility to put it in,” she added.
Outgoing MP Don Rusnak echoed Robinson's comments, and said that the building was important for the First Nation communities it would serve, but also for other in and around the area, referring back to the original treaties as cooperative in nature.
“If you talk to the elders, they talk about sharing our culture and sharing this land and that's what the Treaties meant,” Rusnak said.
“If you're not First Nations, you are welcomed in this facility and you're welcomed in the communities and I think that's very important to get across, that we all share this land and this vision that Delbert had and that the staff and everyone continued on and persevered through. I know today Delbert is smiling down on us and I can feel his spirit here,” he added.
Current SGEI CEO Brent Tookenay took a moment to recall the words of advice Horton shared with him upon his retirement, when he suggested Tookenay put his name in for the job.
“When I was fortunate enough to get the CEO position I said, 'Del, now what?'” Tookenay recalled.
“His advice to me was, he goes, 'Hey, you know what? No worries.' He goes, 'Seven Gens is in pretty good shape, but you know what, you got to reinvent it. You got to reinvent it because you know, we're going along okay, but ...' That was all he said to me and I said okay.”
Tookenay also revealed a plaque that will be installed somewhere in the new building dedicated to Horton, and acknowledged the impact he had on SGEI as an institution.
“What Delbert means to this organization, you know, you can't say any words about it,” Tookenay said.
“We're all here today. Del not only changed education in Treaty #3, he changed it across the world and I think that's important to know. He's well-respected from Australia to Peru and everywhere in between.”
Horton's wife, Laura, was the final dignitary to speak on his legacy, and shared that his own experience in a residential school and education systems drove him to provide higher quality indigenous education.
“He was small he began school in Manitou Rapids at a day school and it was all in the language.” she said.
“He was quickly moved off to a residential school and came back ... and all the way through his education it was like, 'How come I'm not learning about my teachings, and how come I'm learning about Shakespeare and I'm not learning about Tecumseh?Hhow come I'm not learning about Sacagawea and the others who signed the treaty?”
“'Why am I not learning my songs?' And those questions were always there,” she continued.
Horton eventually created what came to be called Seven Generations Education Institute, and his drive and passion continues to motivate and inspire the staff and students who knew him.
“He spoke to some young people at a graduation in Kenora at our other site there,” Laura recalled.
"He said to them, 'You've got to do things in a good way. But it's up to you. You can do whatever you want, you can go out and sell drugs. You can go drop out of school. You can sleep in tonight, or you can get up in the morning and say what am I going to accomplish today? How am I going to move forward?'
“We lose people but always like a drop of water, a pebble goes in the water,” Laura continued.
“And he says, 'It'll be fine. It'll be fine. I'll be gone but you know what? The water just fills right back up again.'”