FROG LAKE - Although there may have been rain and snow falling outside, it was a bright and celebratory mood inside Tustukeeskaws School on Tuesday morning. It was a day of celebration and acknowledgements for the hard work and dedication put into the creation of a brand new junior/senior high school in Frog Lake.
"Today's a very special day," said William Quinney, band administrator with Frog Lake. The new Grade 7 to 12 school is built onto the existing field house, which is located near the band office.
William noted that the population at the First Nation's community is growing and "we need to prepare." He further stated it was beautiful to see children in the community getting educated, and acknowledged the community for coming together "to help our kids."
Elder Raymond Quinney, who was joined by Elder Cecile Dion, offered some thoughts at the April 5 grand opening, along with a prayer.
"I know this is a very special occasion," said Raymond. Reflecting on the challenges and changes that have taken place, he noted, "We are a resilient people... we've come a long way."
He spoke of how the people of Frog Lake have a right to design their own destination. "There's a lot of work... but together if we can unite our energies, we can make those changes," said Raymond.
Education authority board chair Wanda Henderson called up her fellow board members as she addressed the gymnasium filled with students, staff, community members and other delegates.
She told students that she wants each of them to have "the ultimate dream," and described how over the years, education had changed in Frog Lake. Board member Doris Okanee had to leave the community to graduate high school, noted Henderson, while fellow board member Bryan Horse was one of the first to graduate from high school in the community.
"We believe in First Nations education," said Henderson, adding, her advice to students was simple: "Take care of our school."
Chief Greg Desjarlais reflected on the day, as he spoke to those in attendance.
"We're not guaranteed tomorrow... love one another," said the Chief. He spoke about how love was a "very simple remedy" to many problems.
Desjarlais also reflected on how those in attendance were sitting comfortably in the new school, while many of their ancestors once slept on straw. He spoke about how he personally lived through many changes - hauling wood and pumping water when he was younger - and he pointed to the importance of lifelong learning.
He told a story of how his mother would often holler at Desjarlais and his siblings to get up in the morning to catch the bus.
"Our parents and our grandparents love us... it's up to us to keep going."
He encouraged the youth to respect their elders and pay attention when others are speaking, and asked students to respect their teachers like they would respect their parents. And, he also pointed to how important young people are, saying, "These young children here are the future."
He told students to reach for the jobs that are on "the top of the tree," to aspire to become engineers, architects, doctors, teachers, and lawyers, for example.
"You have to have visions and dreams in life... I want you to open your mind and your heart."
The Chief acknowledged the government for funding provided for the construction of the new school and the elders who prayed and turned sod on the project.
Speaking after the Chief was Frog Lake Coun. Clifton Cross and Jessie Morris, manager of member library services with Northern Lights Library System.
Housed within the new high school is a unique room. The space is built as an auditorium, which will host dramatic presentations and other events, but it also includes movable book shelves ready to hold a variety of literary resources.
For 150 years, the province of Alberta has not had a First Nation exist within a provincial library sytem, said Cross. He acknowledged the hard work that was put forward by individuals such as Mary Jane Quinney, who helped put forward a proposal to begin the process. Not only does the library have access to physical materials within NLLS, but thousands of other resources can now be accessed by residents in Frog Lake.
Morris spoke about how NLLS aimed to be a true partner in the project, and the only vision that existed was the vision shared by the community. She explained how the residents of Frog Lake asked for an ally, and the result was a library built for the community it is meant to serve.
Through creating the public library, the first ever Frog Lake library board was also created. Growing up, Cross said he had to travel outside his home community to access the books he wanted to read, which included specifically the Space Odyssey series.
Using the series of books as an example, Cross challenged students to believe they could reach Mars, and "break barriers." With the new library, they have countless books by countless authors at their fingertips. They can now dream and have access to all the resources they need.
Cross added that the celebration on Tuesday wasn't just about a ribbon cutting, but it was a day to honour those who attended residential schools, those who are no longer here due to the pandemic, and those who have battled addition.
"Pick up those books... dream higher than those clouds," said Cross.
Building the school
Mary Jane Quinney offered a brief overview of the process that was involved in having the new school built. She noted that it started with a boiler needing to be changed at the old school, along with other renovations that were also required.
Also, as more programming came into the school, it became obvious that staff and students needed more space to function.
Funds unexpectedly became available for a new school project, and once the community had agreement on how to proceed, the pieces started to come together. It was decided that the school would be built onto the existing fieldhouse, which made the fieldhouse - an important building in the community - more financially feasible to continue to operate.
"Everybody started to be involved with the planning of the school," said Mary Jane.
Then, natural disaster struck outside the province, and federal funds were redirected. But, thanks to help from MP Shannon Stubbs and the perseverance of the community, the new school was built, and the existing school that houses the elementary students also saw improvements, including the boiler being fixed and a new HVAC system installed.
Mary Jane reiterated the importance of persistence in achieving success.
"Don't give up."
Elder Ernest Stanley spoke about the meaning behind the school's name - Tustukeeskaws. Stanley said he felt very humbled to be asked to speak about the name, which comes from the chief who signed Treaty 6 in 1876.
Director of Education with Frog Lake Education Authority Glenda Bristow said there was a "big team that was involved" in the new school and library. She encouraged students to be proud of the school's name and tell people the history.
She asked the school's administration to join her up front, pointing out that they were the first ever administration for a high school in Frog Lake and they will be leaving a legacy.
A ribbon cutting at the entrance of the school, along with a ribbon cutting in front of the auditorium/library took place after speeches, and was followed by drumming and lunch.
Students have been attending the new school since the start of the 2021-22 school year.