A tremendous fundraising effort is underway at Kitsumkalum First Nation led by the small community school.
The ‘Na Aksa Gyilak’yoo School has set out to raise $2 million towards a new building which will be able to accommodate their rising enrollment numbers.
“Right now we are operating out of a number of different buildings for our classrooms, but we want to have a school that is cohesive and it’s easy to move from one classroom to another without having to go outside,” explained the school’s principal, Colleen Austin.
The largest of the events organized by the school will kick off on National Aboriginal Day, June 21, at the Kitsumkalum hall and will feature artists pledging artwork to be sold for the school’s benefit at an international auction this fall.
Organizers are optimistic that the total value of the pledges will meet or exceed the fundraising goal.
With the forecasted cost of the new building running close to $5 million, a request for the remaining amount will be submitted to the federal Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs which oversees on-reserve schools, according to Austin.
“The chances of getting money from the federal government is a lot better if you’re raising some of your own money, that’s why we want to raise two million dollars,” she said.
The proposed building would more than double the 40-student capacity already reached at the existing set up.
The main school building, dating back more than forty years, was constructed for the local school district before being moved to Kitsumkalum and a growing student body has since taken over the old health building nearby and primary students there received a new portable last year.
Though the buildings are in good shape, exiting each classroom requires students and teachers to use outside pathways and space at the location is running out.
Band council is currently deciding on a new plot of land for the school.
It reached a milestone last year securing independent school status, meaning they can now issue Kitsumkalum Dogwood Diplomas to graduating students, the first of which will go out to two grads following the June 21 event.
The decision to proceed as an accredited school was spurred by a desire to give children, especially First Nations children, struggling in district schools more options.
“We noticed a lot of younger ones dropping out of school in town and so we invited them to come here to fill in the gaps,” Austin explained.
The school teaches the Sm’algyax language and traditional education in addition to provincially-determined curriculum.
“We focus on the Tsimshian language and culture, but we also have a number of students that are Gitxsan, students who are Nisga’a, and other students from other nations,” remarked Austin.
“We have some non-indigenous students here as well because their families really value the Tsimshian language and culture and since their children are living on Tsimshian territory,” she said.
The school receives funding from the federal government for students living in Kitsumkalum or Kitselas while indigenous students who reside off reserve are funded by the province.
Non-indigenous students are also funded to a lesser extent by the provincial government, but Austin emphasizes that none of the students at the school pay tuition and that all the money they receive is pooled.
Though only two students who don’t identify as indigenous are attending the school this year, many more have already signed up for September.
The increase is expected to coincide with a general shift next fall with enrollment exceeding what they’ve had in the past, says Austin.
“[The] numbers are going to change drastically come September because we do have more students coming in to each of the grade levels,” she noted.
Looking ahead to the National Aboriginal Day event, Austin says that this is the first time that the community will be holding something like this.
In their first performance on the territory, the Git Hayetsk dance group, mostly originating from Tsimshian, Nisga’a or Tlingit communities, is traveling in from Vancouver.
First Nation artists, including the renowned Roy Henry Vickers, will be pledging significant pieces worth thousands of dollars each between performances and activities.
‘Na Aksa Gyilak’yoo will continue to accept pledges into September, at which time they will collect the items and hire an auction house to sell the one-off pieces to international collectors.
The ‘Na Aksa Gyilak’yoo fundraising event will be held at Kitsumkalum Hall between 11am-2pm on June 21. Entry is by donation.