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Action demanded after First Nations trustee quits Catholic board

'Those board members continually diminish and downplay my voice as not important,' says First Nations trustee who quit Huron-Superior Catholic District School Board in February
20160328 Huron-Superior Catholic District School Board Sign KA 02
Huron-Superior Catholic District School Board file photo. Kenneth Armstrong/SooToday

Last week marked the first time in Catholic school board chair Sandra Turco’s 22 years as a trustee where the board and the North Shore Tribal Council — an organization representing seven First Nations between Sault Ste. Marie and Sudbury — have ever engaged in a face-to-face meeting. 

Anishinaabe leadership says the Huron-Superior Catholic District School Board (H-SCDSB) needs to work on its relationship with Indigenous Peoples after former First Nations school board trustee Debbie Mayer of Mississauga First Nation resigned from the board in February, citing unfair treatment from other school board trustees. She has since been replaced by Serpent River First Nation Chief Brent Bissaillion. 

“I stand by a previous statement I made that being appointed to a system which is not of our design can be viewed as tokenism by some who were elected to be board members. Those board members continually diminish and downplay my voice as not important,” said Mayer in a statement released by the tribal council last week. “This feeling has not diminished, and I cannot continue to remain in a position where substantive change is not being made in the curriculum being taught to not only our children but the whole student population.” 

North Shore Tribal Council Chief Executive Officer Angus Toulouse, vice-chair Peyton Pitawanakwat, Batchewana First Nation Chief Dean Sayers and Garden River First Nation Chief Andy Rickard all participated in a discussion during the open portion of last week’s school board meeting in Sault Ste. Marie.  

“It was really courageous of them to come forward, but it was a difficult meeting for trustees around the table as well in the same way,” said Turco. “When they first arrived we weren’t sure of what the outcome would be, so it was a little tense.”

Turco says last week’s presentation by the tribal council, also known as Mamaweswen, was an “eye opener.” 

“I don’t want any trustee sitting around the table to feel the way that the former First Nations trustee felt. I don’t want that person to feel that they’re insignificant, what they say doesn’t have meaning,” she said. “I don’t want anyone to walk away, I want people to be encouraged to speak.”

There are 224 students from tribal council communities enrolled in H-SCDSB schools for the 2021-2022 academic year, bringing $3.1 million in tuition payments to the school board.   

“They choose to send their children to our system. They choose — they don’t have to. There are other options out there,” said Turco. “We want to make sure that their children and all children, in all walks of life, feel welcome.”

North Shore Tribal Council is seeking a separate leadership table focused on First Nation communities, the school board’s participation in a teaching lodge in order to foster relationships and cultural learning, and the development of “new tuition agreements that address systemic racism, curriculum, and ensure that our children get the best education they deserve.”

The tribal council wants to see those expectations met within a year. 

Turco hopes that H-SCDSB will determine next steps and formally respond to the expectations laid out by the seven member First Nations. 

“I responded as the chair of the board, but we want to respond on paper,” she said. 

A motion was on the table to create an Indigenous student trustee position during last week’s board meeting, but Turco said that’s now been deferred due to an admitted lack of consultation with Indigenous leadership. 

“Did we even think to ask them what their opinion was? No. We just thought well, this would be a good thing to have,” she said. 

Turco sees last week’s face-to-face meeting as the beginning of an opportunity for the Catholic board and the tribal council to “restart” their relationship. 

“I’m very appreciative that they’re entrusting their students, their families to us, and that they’re willing to give us that second chance,” she said.