For the first time in two decades, residents of Driftpile Cree Nation in northwestern Alberta are celebrating the graduation of high school students who earned their diplomas in the community.
Kyra Giroux, 17, says it's both exciting and "a lot of pressure" to be one of the two graduates along with classmate Kali Cunningham to make up Mihtatakaw Sipiy School's first graduating class since the First Nation stopped offering senior grades in the community because of declining enrolment in the 1990s.
Long determined to bring back its high school program so students wouldn't have to travel to other communities classes, Driftpile finally did so last year amid pandemic-related concerns around sending children out of the nation. And last Saturday, the community was able to celebrate that decision, when dozens turned out at an event to congratulate the graduates for their achievements.
"It's something that the people wanted and we wanted," said Chief Dwayne Laboucan about Driftpile's high school program. "We said, 'We need to start teaching our own kids our own culture.'"
By remaining in Driftpile — which is about 320 kilometres northwest of Edmonton — throughout high school, he said, students can complete an education that includes acquiring traditional knowledge, such as tanning hides and speaking Cree.
"I would've liked to learn more about my culture," said Laboucan, who attended Mihtatakaw Sipiy as a young student, then finished his diploma at high school in High Prairie, almost 50 kilometres away.
"I kind of lost that [cultural education] when I went off the nation."
The high school program resumed last October under the guidance of then-principal Tedmann Onyango, who is now education director.
Onyango said the community's desire to bring back the high school was fast-tracked by growing worry in the community about sending children to school out of the nation during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Watch | Community celebrates first grads in over 20 years:
Lessons for the high school grades are offered online and in-class. Students have the option of coming into the school to work with teachers or they can work from home, Onyango said.
The Class of 2022, Onyango said, will likely have five to seven people.
Father graduated from Mihtatakaw Sipiy in '98
Jonathan Giroux, who is a Driftpile councillor and Kyra's father, said he was among the last students to graduate from Mihtatakaw Sipiy School in the class of 1998.
"It's pretty surreal," he said about the gap between the graduating classes.
Unlike Laboucan, Giroux did most of his schooling in High Prairie, before he switched to Mihtatakaw Sipiy to graduate.
"I learned more about being a Catholic than I do our own cultural ways," Giroux said of his off-nation education.
He said students can learn more about their culture by attending school in the Driftpile.
Kyra — who went to school in Kinuso, about 24 kilometres away from grades 7 to 11, before returning to Mihtatakaw Sipiy School last year — said a stand-out moment for her last year was being able to scrape and tan a hide.
"My daughter is starting to learn more and more about our cultural practices than I do. That's something I'm really grateful for," her father said.
"To have her graduate from here just feels good in my heart."
'A big deal for all of us'
For the graduation ceremony, each member of the Class of 2021 was able to invite 50 guests to join the celebration.
"It's a big deal for all of us that this is happening," said Lisa Giroux, Kyra's aunt and event co-ordinator for the graduation ceremony.
Looking to the future, Kyra is now considering going to Edmonton for her post-secondary education, she said.
"I'm excited to start a new chapter of my life and see new things."