EGG LAKE -- Out here in the bush, sitting around with 23 young men who couldn't hack school the first, or second, or third time around, Dan Reagan estimates there are more than 500 northern teenagers who should be in school at their age and aren't.
Should, as in anyone 18 or younger living within provincial jurisdiction who has yet to graduate from high school must, under law, be in school.
But also should, as in there are so many young people living on or off reserve who would benefit, who would benefit all of us, if they were able to unlock their potential.
"There are numbers like that, yes," said Grand Chief David Harper of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak. "They're drifting away."
Frontier School Division's Engaged Learners program is a sophisticated name for a place that brings young people to a former correctional centre on an unmarked gravel road halfway between Flin Flon and The Pas, over the railway tracks and through the bush to the shores of Egg Lake.
It's the second year of the program. Twenty-three boys and men, followed separately by 23 girls and women, come to the camp several times throughout the year.
Ten students in the inaugural group now study just up the road at the Northern Technical Centre, lodged within Frontier Collegiate Institute in Cranberry Portage.
Frontier Collegiate doesn't look like a school -- it looks like a military barracks from an old war movie.
Which is pretty much what it is.
The former RCAF radar base has been a high school since the mid-1960s, and for the past few years has been the only public technical vocational high school in northern Manitoba.
Both Egg Lake and Cranberry Portage are schools with residences that draw students from all over northern Manitoba, many seeking a second chance at an education.
It's not easy to live away from home, but they come, filling the dorms to capacity.
Harper can already see some benefits, some improvement, some hope, for young people throughout MKO's territory who had not made it previously in the education system.
"These are the kinds of things we really need to look into -- the things that work," the grand chief declared.
Make no mistake, some of these students are hard cases.
One young man says he has no trouble with the 11 p.m. curfew at Egg Lake -- he has the same lights out time when he's in Dauphin jail.
Reagan, who runs Engaged Learners, is a former superintendent of both Frontier and Flin Flon school divisions.
You'll quickly find that all the educators throughout the north know each other and overlap in projects.
"There is very much a mentality of collaboration," said Konrad Jonasson, president of the University College of the North. "It's very much a collegial approach."
Students who attend technical vocational programs in Cranberry Portage can score a hat trick -- a high school credit, a UCN credit and apprenticeship hours.
Throughout the north, UCN is exploring dual credit programs with high schools, Jonasson said. Nor does UCN just co-operate in Manitoba -- Northlands College in Creighton, Sask., makes its residences available for UCN mining students in Flin Flon.
This is an area in which the border with Saskatchewan basically doesn't exist. High school students go back and forth, college students go back and forth; high school grads in Flin Flon often look first to Saskatoon and the University of Saskatchewan, people in general look to Prince Albert as their nearest big city.
The name you keep hearing everywhere is deputy minister of education Gerald Farthing, who's up to his eyeballs in encouraging non-traditional classrooms designed to help overwhelmingly-Aboriginal young people get an education.
In that 70-kilometre stretch from Egg Lake to Flin Flon, which has one of Manitoba's first alternative public high schools, the vast majority of second-chance students comes from Duck Bay, Cormorant, Fox Lake, Norway House, Berens River, and so many other remote First Nations communities.
What you hear far less of is much mention of the federal government, constitutionally responsible for First Nations education.
When Ottawa funds indigenous education at several thousand dollars per student less than public school students, when so many reserves don't have high schools, when students can't adjust to traditional classrooms far from home, educators not only have to think outside the box -- they have to conjure up all kinds of new boxes, and then think outside of them.
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At break time at Engaged Learners, the lads, all make themselves comfy on a porch, cigarette on every lip, smartphone in every palm.
The bush starts about 40 metres away, reputed to have bears and wolves and coyotes, and 50 metres to the left is the stoney shore of Egg Lake, for which adjectives such as beautiful are too trite.
One student is in the care of Child and Family Services. Another was 'forced' to come -- maybe one day he'll thank the judge.
A 16-year-old from Duck Bay has been out of school for a year, which is illegal for his age.
A fellow from Berens River says, "The last year I finished was Grade 6."
Darrell Green, also of Berens River, points to a notebook and says, twice for emphasis, be sure you say that no one had to give him this chance, but they did anyway.
"I got kicked out twice for fighting -- it's been really hard to get back into school," said Green, the 20-year-old father of a young son. "In Cranberry, I got into a dozen fights.
"These guys didn't have to take me, but they did. A lot of people in my position need a second chance."
The Parenteau brothers from Duck Bay, Jericho, turned 17 that morning, and 15-year-old Samuel, talked about how they patrol around Duck Bay at night, keeping their community safer, covering turf the band constable can't get to often enough.
"The crazy guys, they don't come out when we walk around. The town is safer for everyone," said Jericho, who acknowledged, "We have trouble with kids in school."
To which Samuel chimed in: "We don't get much done."
But now here's Jericho holding out his smartphone to show a photo of the previous evening's dinner at Egg Lake: "That's sirloin, and salad and corn and veg," he beamed.
They're both looking at learning carpentry, to emulate their dad who installs hydro lines, proving there are hints at Egg Lake of a way out.
The weather was warm for September, so Reagan took them camping the first two nights, a wilderness session that usually happens later.
"Where's Brent?" Reagan singles out a grinning young man at the post-breakfast chat that opens the day. "There's our No. 1 fisherman."
Best in a canoe? "Jacob and Blain, good job, guys," said Reagan.
"We can introduce you to some things you may want to go into. When you go back home, we really want you to have something to do," Reagan told the 23.
One guy piped up that he has no SIN card: "We'll work with you to get it," responded Reagan.
Driver's ed is available at Egg Lake. One student told the staff that no, he doesn't have a learner's permit, but yeah, sure, he knows how to drive.
The classroom paint is peeling, the desks have seen better decades, but the window looks out on wilderness and it's all pretty laid back -- to a point.
During the 12 days, the students share cameras; it's part of class work to discuss what they've chosen to photograph.
Several photos showed finger-guns and gang symbols, one placed a length of wood at an inappropriate angle to the student's lower regions.
Matt Lind, a young teacher from Moose Jaw who will teach math and phys ed credits, hits delete.
"Crap like that, to me, is unacceptable," Lind said, subtly reminding everyone that Egg Lake doesn't just hand out high school credits.
So what happens if two people go for one job at the mine in Flin Flon, Lind asked the students: "Dakota has his Grade 12, (snaps his fingers), so instantly he's ahead of Darryl."
The students need to bring in a signed log showing 50 hours of physical activity at home, to supplement Lind's strenuous phys ed classes and the time out on the lake.
Hand goes up: "What about having fun with your girlfriend?"
Lind: "No, we're not counting that one."
A big part of the classroom work is portfolios, resumes and it's all going to be math for carpentry, Lind explained.
They'll also learn emergency forest fire fighting.
The carpentry shop is out back, and like everything else in the camp, has seen better days. The students will be building tables so there will be enough places to sit, then they'll start on ice shacks.
Construction is a desperately-needed northern skill. Carpentry will be followed by electrical and welding later this year.
Shop teacher Darrell Guest sits the students down first thing and lets them know he's been where they are.
He dropped out of school in Grade 7, was orphaned at 14, pumped gas in the afternoons. His mind wasn't focused on school, he said, because of too many family problems.
Aimless years led to Katimavik and the military, Guest said, maybe they'd prefer to get it together earlier in life than he did.
Message sent, maybe received?
Time to get to work in the construction workshop, said Guest: "Everybody's got 10 fingers? We start with 10, we finish with 10."
Two things were serendipitous for Egg Lake, said Reagan: the facility was available, now owned by Opaskweeyak Cree Nation, and provincial legislation requiring everyone to stay in school until 18 unless he or she graduated earlier had the province and school divisions on board.
The money was easy.
There's more than $5 million going begging for northern education because the per-student funding, federal or provincial, doesn't get paid if people 18 and under aren't enrolled on anyone's books. Enrol with Engaged Learners, here's your education funding, bills covered.
"All we're doing is accessing the entitlement," Reagan said.
"We've tried to work with the kids who've dropped out of school for whatever reason," he said. "Our goal is to have them back in school. The kids are 15 to 21.
"Some have partial high school credits and some have none."
Limit is 23 at a time, because, "Our bus holds 24, and we need a supervisor."
Down south, in technical vocational high schools, "They have access to every kind of program -- ours don't," Reagan said.
Sure, Egg Lake could teach academic credits without getting into skills, but, "To graduate for graduation's sake is OK, but so what?
"We're not too rigid -- they're not in school, for a reason. We're taking a broader definition of education...all learning doesn't happen in the classroom."
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Among the many things you can say about the Cold War, we built our defences against the Commies to last.
Everything on the campus of Frontier Collegiate was built right after the war, and it's still in great shape -- and none better than the massive hangar, which students themselves converted into the technical vocational high school jewel of the north.
This is where students built portables when the school burned down at Moose Lake. It's where they're building two 1,176-square-feet three-bedroom houses for families somewhere in the north.
Within the hangar -- officially, the Northern Technical Centre -- there are nifty facilities to learn carpentry, building construction, power mechanics, commercial cooking, and cosmetology.
Teachers, with fingers crossed, say plumbing and welding and fork-lift training will be coming.
Stephen Bighetty, who only went to Grade 9 in Brochet, is getting pretty comfortable with tools: "It's pretty cool to have an opportunity like this," he said. Back home, high school students "either go to Lynn Lake or Brandon. My reserve doesn't sponsor Winnipeg or Thompson."
Four out of five students in Cranberry Portage are aboriginal, and about the same proportion live in the dorms the air force left behind.
"They just all came here by rail, plane, vehicle -- the kids came from all over the north -- they've been coming for 47 years," said Cathy Fidierchuk, Frontier School Division's area superintendent, and a Metis grad of the school.
"They'll get their full Grade 12 here," she said.
It's the shops that are the key to training students with the job skills the north needs.
"There's a huge need for technical/vocational skills," Didierchuk said. "None of our students would (otherwise) be able to have these opportunities.
"It makes sense to have students have lead-up instruction -- industries so vital to the north. We tried to focus on the programs that were relevant to our students," she said. "The kids see a different reality here."
Principal Dodie Johnston is among the 40 per cent of faculty who are Frontier Collegiate grads: "We want our students coming out with a decent resume," she said. "We want them to go back to their communities with Grade 12-plus."
That could mean apprenticeship hours, it could mean postsecondary credits, it definitely means marketable skills.
"In a lot of our communities there are construction camps. A lot of our communities have skidoos and boats" that need servicing, Johnston said. "Every little community needs a hairdresser."
Students also graduate with the ability to work as emergency forest fire fighters.
Teacher Bill Taylor has proposed a partial credit in prospecting that would give students a leg up in looking for a job with the mines: "They're out in their communities where the minerals are being found."
New vice-principal Alex Parr is planning a partial credit for trapping -- traditional yes, yet also employable.
"The school has a trap line, not used for years; it's a trail you have exclusive use," said Parr, who grew up on the land in a remote Labrador Metis community. "We're trying to get (trapping) up and running as an extended option."
Students would learn to trap and clean fox, marten, beaver.
The dorms, with gender-separate buildings, serve a night lunch at 9:30 p.m. courtesy of the students in the commercial cooking course, who also do dinner; staff handle lunch and breakfast. Lights go out at 10 p.m.
And further proof things are different here -- student Bighetty really likes the high school food.
Indeed, it's that good. The ribs slow-cooking for dinner would have had the wildlife salivating three lakes away.
Twice a week buses take students into Flin Flon for personal item shopping, there's an occasional movie in The Pas, Addictions Foundation Manitoba and the public health nurse come to school each week, and there's GOOT club -- get out of town to the public library.
But it's the shops that make Cranberry Portage special.
"It makes your hair stand on end when you see what these kids can do," said Grant Kreuger, Frontier's technical vocational training co-ordinator. "It's the best reason to get into education."
"They're not woodworking, they're construction," declared building construction instructor Maurice Beauchamp. "I try to teach them the real world."
The students are building the high school's teleconferencing and distance education classroom, whose quality will be the envy of any university or government online classroom in Manitoba, said Tyson MacGillivray, Frontier's assistant superintendent of senior years and career program.
It's all about opportunity and equity, said principal Johnston: "We want our students to get the same education they'd get if they lived in the north end."
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FLIN FLON -- Hear that?
That's the sound of a pin dropping.
The teacher has left the classroom, but no one's gone feral, the classroom doesn't suddenly become all lord of the flies.
There's a large high school only a few metres away, a typical high school in which social relations and extracurricular activities may sometimes be higher priorities for a student's attention than the periodic table or the Act of Union of 1840.
But in Many Faces alternative high school, these people are seriously buried in their books, these 60 or so people grabbing, again, at an education that could give them a better life.
Trite and cliched, maybe, but they buy into it.
Corey Allen had a baby this summer, and here she is, working on her Grade 12, after being out of school for three or four years.
"My attendance and marks weren't so great the first time. Coming to school was just hanging around with your friends," Allen said with a wry smile. "I'm thinking of getting my bachelor of education at the University of Saskatchewan."
In the north, they're taking care of their own. People with needs and potential find a place in a classroom, and whether they're from Manitoba or Saskatchewan or a reserve in whatever province, educators with innovative ideas get them in a classroom and worry later about which jurisdiction has constitutional responsibility for paying for their education.
"I've been living in town for several years. I've been in so many schools, I like this best," said Faith Linklater of Pelican Narrows.
She's been out for school for 2 1/2 years, and is now partway through grades 10 and 11 credits.
"I was aware (of Many Faces). Members of my family have been here before, and graduated," she said. "I'm able to do it on my own time, no pressure -- it's more like being friends," said Linklater, who wants to attend community college to get an outdoors job in natural resources.
Marlene McKay has been in and out of school the past seven years.
"I was a brat. I was having problems with the teachers," said McKay, who needs two more credits. She eventually wants to be an addiction counsellor. "I worked three jobs at a time, I looked after my mom, my dad when he was alive."
Principal Patty Korchinski explained students arrive at 10 a.m. -- no bells for Many Faces. It meets the students' needs better.
Students share the teachers' lounge, an acknowledgement that most of them are adults -- including a 62-year-old two years ago -- a subtle reminder that while the teachers determine if a student gets a credit, Many Faces is a collegial effort.
If a student has to leave, even for a few months if life gets in the way, the teachers will pick up right where that student left off when she or he returns, said Korchinski.
A lot of people work shifts at the mine, they may need courses for job upgrades, they can only come at irregular hours, pointed out teacher Maureen Reagan.
"It's fairly relaxed. We're not giving them heck," she said. "You talk to them like adults."
Many Faces uses the Copernican timetable: one subject in the morning, one in the afternoon, an entire year of each subject covered in 10 weeks.
They have English, social studies, and math in the morning this fall, hairstyling and science all afternoon.
Teacher Shari Anderson said that some students find it easier to commit to 10 weeks at a time, knowing they'll rack up two credits in those 10 weeks. "For some students, it's easier to wrap your head around two subjects, one morning, one afternoon."
"It's a comfortable environment for the kids that have come here," teacher Craig McIntosh said. "They don't get the same attention next door (at Hapnot Collegiate), with 27 in the classroom. The curriculum is there, and we tweak it as we see fit, so they can be independent."
McIntosh said younger students will listen to advice from a 36-year-old at the next desk that they won't listen to from a teacher.
"It's kept growing and growing. The kids wouldn't have come to a regular school," said superintendent Blaine Veitch, who pointed out that another 50 students come to Many Faces each evening when it becomes an adult learning centre.
There's nothing set in stone at Many Faces, said the superintendent: "If it's not working, we get our heads together" and try something else.
"We have new ones walking in every day," said Anderson. "Today I got two new students, Maureen got three.
"They're on a mission."