CRANBERRY PORTAGE -- When the daunting challenges facing northern Manitoba First Nations are pondered, education is often cited as the answer.
But getting a good education is easier said than done in a vast, sparsely populated district whose resources pale compared to down south.
Enter the Northern Technical Centre. Based in Cranberry Portage, a regional hub for northern secondary education, the facility officially opened earlier this month to offer trades training to students of Frontier Collegiate Institute.
"This centre will introduce young people to the world of trades, industry and entrepreneurial opportunities," said Cathy Fidierchuk, the Cranberry Portage-based area superintendent of the Frontier School Division. "These opportunities available to young people in northern Manitoba are at a historic high and we dream that for every student there will be a path to a productive and fulfilling future."
That may sound idealistic, but there's no denying that "the trades is where it's at," as Education Minister Nancy Allan told a Sept. 13 grand opening attended by 120-plus dignitaries and students.
Providing credit toward technical-vocational learning, the Northern Technical Centre offers courses in building construction, power mechanics and cosmetology.
In the building construction course, students are taught to manufacture ready-to-move buildings, which will help address the infamous housing needs in the region.
The power mechanics program bestows students with skills in mechanical trades, allowing them to work on a range of vehicles, engines and other mechanical equipment.
In the cosmetology room, indistinguishable from a professional salon, students learn to cut and style hair on dummy heads.
Both inside and out, the centre is impressive. Based in a former helicopter hangar, it towers a few storeys overhead in an isolated corner of the Frontier Collegiate campus.
The multi-building campus, laid out like a small rural town, is a fascinating story in itself. From 1957 to 1964, the premises housed a Cold War-era Royal Canadian Air Force station that kept tabs on Soviet air movements.
When Ottawa shut down the station, it found new life as a high school, complete with dorms, for students from across northern Manitoba whose home communities offered no secondary learning.
The hangar transformed into a makeshift dorm and, later, a base to produce homes for relocation throughout the northern region. It was also used for heavy-duty mechanics.
Now, following its latest conversion, the hangar is a myriad of state-of-the-art shops and classrooms, though much of it remains wide-open space for use by the construction students.
The hope is centre graduates will take their new-found skills back to their home reserves or use them to find employment in other communities.
Alex Knight of Moose Lake, a reserve near The Pas, who studied carpentry at the centre (it has already offered training for some time), said he is grateful for the quality of education he received.
Knight, 23, works as a jail guard but has his sights set on a career in construction.
Like every other stakeholder, Allan has high hopes for the centre in the years ahead.
"You give someone an education, you give them that piece of paper in their hands, and you give them the ability to participate in our society," she said. "You give them the ability to follow their dreams, you give them an opportunity to open doors for themselves."
Of course, those doors are likely to change over time. Skills in demand now may be extraneous tomorrow. That fact is not lost on Fidierchuk: "Our program will continue to evolve and grow based on the needs of northern communities."
With a population around 600 people, Cranberry Portage, a 35-minute drive south of Flin Flon, does not offer much in terms of employment.
But thanks to the Northern Technical Centre, it's where many promising careers will now be launched.
Jonathon Naylor is editor of the Reminder in Flin Flon.