A Win-Win Relationship

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Lawrence Wesley Education Centre, Cat Lake, Northern Ontario

Student with new book

The children in the School in Cat Lake have received books from IODE Laurentian Chapter for the past 10 years.

Ice road truck

A truck thunders in along the winter road, bringing vital supplies to the Cat Lake Reserve. For the rest of the year Cat Lake is a fly-in only community.

Cat Lake Map

Position of Cat Lake is in Northern Ontario

The Cat Lake First Nation Reserve - situated some 180 kilometres north of Sioux Lookout on the western boundary of Ontario - is one of the province's 31 very isolated communities. Since 2005, when IODE Laurentian Chapter adopted the grade 5/6 class in, what was then, Titotay Memorial School, parcels of books and educational items have been sent on a regular basis. In September 2010 another class at the school was adopted by the Chapter.

Every few months, members of the Chapter's Education Committee meet in Ottawa to select books and classroom items for the two classes and package them up for shipment to Cat Lake. The 538-acre Ojibway Reserve has a population of some 570 people, almost 50% of them being under the age of 15. It is these youngsters that are the focus of IODE Laurentian Chapter's interest and concern.

Christmas parcels

September 2014 Back to school parcels being prepared for shipment up to the two classes.

Adopt-a-Class, 2005

In 2005, IODE Laurentian Chapter resolved - as a part of a larger provincial initiative - to adopt a First Nations class in a remote area of Ontario. They contacted Titotay Memorial School, the school in Cat Lake, which has around 150 students ranging from junior kindergarten to grade 8. The Chapter offered to partner with the grade 5/6 class. "Adopting" a class means a two-way flow of information is opened up and through this, books, magazine subscriptions, photographs and other items are able to open up new horizons for the children to a larger world. At the same time the Chapter's members are able to gain a fascinating, first-hand introduction to life in a small native community.

The idea of "adoption" means providing the little extras that are so difficult to come by in such a remote area. As well as the many books for the students and teachers the Chapter dispatches subscriptions to Canadian Geographic and National Geographic, sports equipment such as skipping ropes, flying discs and hackey sacks a well as socks, toques, scarves and gloves in the winter. Near Christmas, games, decorations, craft items, candy canes and DVDs are sent. Items for other celebrations such as the Olympics, Easter and Halloween are shipped up as appropriate. This past 6 years each child in the Grade 6 (5/6) class has also been sent a new school backpack and pencil case.

Hats and scarves

Hats, scarves, socks and mitts to keep out the Northern cold are received with enthusiasm.

A sense of humour is an essential attribute for the teachers in Cat Lake as frequently the electricity, internet or water supply can fail in this remote area. The School takes every possible opportunity to assist in the general and cultural education of the students.

Ice fishing

Some of Grade 6 ice fishing. December 2013.

Lawrence Wesley Education Centre

Lawrence Wesley Education Centre (photograph courtesy of Smith Carter Architects and Engineers Inc.)

Play structures

Play structures at the new school (photograph courtesy of Smith Carter Architects and Engineers Inc.)

Titotay Memorial School burned down over 20 years ago, so until September 2013 schooling had to be undertaken in portables and other temporary buildings. On 6th September 2013 a new school was opened amid great excitement. Needless to say building the new school, now called The Lawrence Wesley Education Centre, was not an easy task as getting building materials up to this isolated community all depends upon the condition of the ice roads during the winter months.

The burden of isolation

Isolation is the key-note. The nearest town is Pickle Lake, 115 kilometres northeast, but it is small and can only be reached by chartered aircraft or by driving 4-5 hours on the ice road in the winter. Most significant business is done in Sioux Lookout, which is the community's doorway to the larger world. As for Cat Lake, in winter months the ice road usually opens for three or four months, allowing trucks to transport heavy goods, including fuel and building materials. One winter, however, spring came disastrously early, and the winter road was open for less than a month. Nevertheless, the winter fleet of trucks - running day and night - managed to bring in building supplies for the police station, where three constables maintain order. Cat Lake is mostly a peaceful community, where alcohol is prohibited.

In other seasons, the community can only be reached by air, and planes fly in at least twice a day. Cat Lake has a small airport.

The remoteness of the community means prices are high. There is no bank in town and no post office (only a room in the Band office where incoming mail is gathered and sorted). There is only one grocery store on the reserve, where a brick of cheese costs about $16, a pint of strawberries $11, a loaf of sliced bread $6 and 1 litre of milk $4. As well, there are two convenience stores that sell pop and chips. There is also a gas bar in town, a Healing Centre and a nursing station, but the nearest hospital is in Sioux Lookout. There is no doctor or dentist in Cat Lake. Veterinarians fly into the community periodically to spay and neuter pet dogs and to vaccinate and de-worm them.

The Cat Lake settlement may be isolated, but it is also rich in history and culture. The first European traders made contact with this 7,000-year-old community in 1783, and reserve status was granted nearly 200 years later, in 1973.

The teachers keep in close touch with IODE Laurentian Chapter and send photographs and reports on the various events at the school. Students occasionally send us thank-you letters.

Thank-you letter

A Grade 2/3 student sits down to write her personal thank-you letter to us.

Both English and Ojibway are spoken at Cat Lake. The people in the community want their children to be proud of and retain their Ojibway heritage but at the same time, they realize that education is essential if the children are going to prosper and thrive in life. The teachers and the community members ensure that the students are exposed to a variety of cultural and traditional customs such as the building of sweat lodges, the curing of hides, fishing, hunting and more recently making birch syrup. In April 2013 Eric Bortlis, the then grade 5/6 teacher, started to teach the students how to make birch syrup. In his blog Eric wrote "The curriculum ties are plentiful. We have incorporated a lot of math such as the percentage of sugar content in the sap vs. the amount in the syrup, the price of maple syrup compared to birch and the reasons why and graphing the circumference of the tree and the amount of sap produced. Of course the science lessons are also plentiful. The grade fives have discussed the changes in the states of matter from solid as snow/ice through its journey into the roots, up the tree into liquid and eventually being boiled off into steam, a gas. The grade sixes are learning about the solar system and we have discussed tap placement based upon the sun's path and availability of sugary sap due to the season. We have done procedural writing and will soon be writing our own books to describe the process to students from other communities."

Eric tapping the birch trees.

Tapping the birch trees.

The birch sap gradually reducing down

The birch sap gradually reducing down.

Back in the summer of 2011 the whole community, like many others in Northern Ontario, had to be evacuated because of extensive forest fires. Fortunately no damage occurred to the homes but power was cut off for a lengthy period of time and perishable foods and freezer contents were lost. It is yet to be seen what long term damage has occurred to the traditional hunting and fishing areas that surround Cat Lake.

The electronic doorway

Computerization has made a real difference to the isolation of Cat Lake, with information and photographs flying through cyberspace at will. The school has computers and iPads available for the students but unfortunately the internet is down more often than not, and a simple malfunction of the computer system is extremely hard to repair in such an isolated location. Until this situation improves greatly the traditional need for a variety of books and written resources is vital.

New school classroom

One of the classrooms in the new School (photograph courtesy of Smith Carter Architects and Engineers Inc.).

The mission of the IODE highlights education as a means to enrich the lives of individual Canadians. IODE Laurentian Chapter has established a warm and supportive relationship over the years with the teachers and students at Lawrence Wesley Education Centre and has received numerous thank-you letters from the students along with the delightful School Year Book each year. Laurentian Chapter women are also connecting into and learning about life on a Northern Ontario reserve. That is what we call "win-win."