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First Nation in community of Lax Kw’alaams sees first Grade 12 graduation

Coast Tsimshian Academy’s Class of 2017 will mark their graduation by visiting Quebec and Ontario this month. The teens have never travelled beyond Alberta, making the trip even more memorable, one teacher says.

Ben Barak

Nine aboriginal students in the first-ever Grade 12 graduation class in the remote B.C. community of Lax Kw'alaams are poised to celebrate the milestone with a Canadian flourish by visiting Ontario and Quebec.

Finishing Grade 12 in their own village is an achievement unto itself. Until the Class of 2017, students had to uproot their lives just to complete high school.

The graduating students didn't have to move away from home and cope with academic upheaval. Instead, they have embraced the past two years of staying in Lax Kw'alaams and are excited by the coming trip to commemorate their achievement, said their language arts teacher, Cora Barak.

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The Coast Tsimshian Academy, which previously went from preschool to only Grade 10, has been housed in a new building since September, 2015. After setting up the curriculum for Grade 11 for the 2015-16 school year, teachers were thrilled to prepare for Grade 12 for the current school year, allowing students to remain in Lax Kw'alaams with the support of immediate family members. The goal is to discourage dropouts.

"The success rate for finishing Grade 12 before was not ideal, but it's an extremely exciting time now," Ms. Barak said in an interview from Lax Kw'alaams in northwestern B.C. "Graduating from their own certified Grade 12 in their own village is a pretty big deal. This has been a dream come true for the Lax Kw'alaams First Nation."

The Coast Tsimshian Academy is an independent school. After completing Grade 10, students in Lax Kw'alaams who wanted to enroll in Grade 11 would need to move away to live with relatives or at a boarding house in order to attend high school in Prince Rupert or Terrace.

From the village, it takes roughly a 20-minute drive and a 45-minute ferry ride to reach the dock in Prince Rupert. Terrace is a 90-minute drive east of Prince Rupert.

Some teens even moved to Vancouver, which takes about 20 hours to reach by car from Prince Rupert.

Ms. Barak and another teacher, Anton Tolstoy, will accompany the Coast Tsimshian Academy students on the coming trip to Central Canada.

The teens haven't travelled any farther east than Alberta, so the trip will be a memorable one, Ms. Barak said. "We live in such a huge country, so it will be a really great way for them to see the different things that Canada has to offer," she said.

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The 12-day agenda kicks off on May 23. Given the remote location of Lax Kw'alaams, it will mean one long travel day at the start of the trip and one at the end.

Students will make their way to the airport in Prince Rupert to fly to Vancouver, then catch a connecting red-eye flight from Vancouver to Montreal, where they will arrive the morning of May 24. After touring Montreal for three days, they will visit Quebec City, Ottawa and Toronto.

The Indigenous village formerly had two residential schools, the last of which closed in 1948. An estimated 800 people now live in the community of Lax Kw'alaams, or one-fifth the total number of band members. About 1,800 members are based in the Prince Rupert region and another 1,000 people are located in Vancouver and elsewhere.

The teens have been holding a variety of fundraising events for their trip, including bake sales. An event featuring auction and raffle items, including donations from the students themselves, garnered nearly $3,200 in March. A crowdfunding campaign has raised $25,000, or three-quarters of the way toward reaching the website's goal of collecting $33,000.

Taiah Alexcee is looking forward to the Toronto segment of the trip. "I want to see the CN Tower because I like heights," she said.

Brian Johnson is already anticipating the June convocation ceremony in his own community. "It's better than moving after Grade 10. Some families don't have enough money to move to even Rupert," he said.

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A controversial liquefied natural gas proposal in the region is a long-term economic prospect, though far from certain. There hasn't been much chatter among the Class of 2017 about trying to land jobs related to exporting the fuel.

Ms. Alexcee and Mr. Johnson are open to moving elsewhere in British Columbia to find jobs. They haven't decided yet on their precise next steps, but she is pondering a trade such as welding and he is interested in becoming a heavy-equipment operator.

Angel Abrahams has her sights set on attending the College of New Caledonia in Prince George in the B.C. Interior. "I'm planning to become a computer technician, fixing computers and all the good stuff," she said.

Two of the graduates, Nikita Wesley and Steve Reece, welcomed a new baby girl into their lives in April. The couple, who also have a three-year-old daughter, have arranged for caregivers to take care of their two children in Lax Kw'alaams while they are on the once-in-a-lifetime trip.

In total, there are 10 students in the Grade 12 class. The other graduates are Pamela Auckland, Sabrina Sutherland, Kelli Dudoward, Cayden White and Norma-Jean Sankey. Ms. Sankey is expecting a baby in July and won't be making the trip east.

Graduation ceremonies are set for June 17 at the Coast Tsimshian Academy in Lax Kw'alaams. Grad outfits will be supplied by a suburban Toronto shopping mall that volunteered to donate to the historic Class of 2017.

Academy principal Kelly Rambeau has watched the students thrive during his three years at the school. "It gives me goosebumps, to be honest, to talk about how mature they've become," Mr. Rambeau said. "I'm really looking forward to the next chapter in their lives, and it's nice to know we played a small little part."

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