Alex Morland and his pen pal Nathan Louttit. Photo by Evan Boudreau

Graduation trip brings together students from two different realities

  • June 13, 2012

TORONTO - Alex Morlando finally met Nathan Louttit, the Attawapiskat native he’s been communicating with through letters, the Internet and Xbox since they were both in Grade 7.

“Our teacher assigned us pen pals and (said) we would have to communicate through letters,” said Morlando, now in Grade 8 at Toronto’s Our Lady of Fatima Catholic School. “We started off like that and then we started communicating a little more through Xbox and the Internet. That’s how I really got to know Nathan.”

Louttit and 23 other students from Nakogee Elementary School, on a Grade 8 graduation trip, visited Morlando’s school June 6, allowing the two boys to finally meet in person.

The two-school partnership began when Brenda Stewart joined Our Lady of Fatima as a Grade 2 teacher in 2010. A former member of the Toronto Catholic District School Board’s literacy department, Stewart has worked with the northern community since the 2003-04 school year when declining literacy rates prompted the First Nations board to seek help elsewhere.

“They contacted me because they wanted to improve the literacy in their schools,” said Stewart, who is of Métis decent.

“When I came to this school two years ago I started informing the students here and the teachers here about the situation in Attawapiskat.” 

Nakogee Elementary School was built in the mid-1970s and soon after the problems began. The most significant issue was a diesel spill in 1979. Years of band-aid repairs came to an end in 2000 when parents refused to send their children to school after staff and students repeatedly fell ill. At that point the building closed and the school became an array of portables, a temporary solution the federal government promised to fix in the near future. The community is still waiting.

The situation in Attawapiskat inspired Morlando to maintain the long-distance friendship.

“I was surprised how the school was in that state,” said Morlando. “They’re in a little bit of trouble right now without a school. It touched me a little bit to hear that.”

Things have gone from bad to worse as the Attawapiskat First Nations leadership declared a state of emergency last winter due to a housing crisis where dilapidated homes were no defense against the extreme cold.

“The money from the education department got re-rooted to deal with the housing crisis,” said Stewart. “So our school got on board with a campaign to help them.”

Each class at Our Lady of Fatima was assigned a specific type of school supply to collect for their northern counterparts, ranging from notebooks to writing utensils and art supplies. 

Attawapiskat is an isolated community for the majority of the year, accessible by vehicle only during the winter via an ice road. If it wasn’t for the graduation trip most students would never leave the community until reaching adulthood.

After a little socializing with their pen pals and a pizza lunch — foreign cuisine to the Attawapiskat students — it was time to raise some awareness. Presentations were giving by Nakogee Elementary School staff, a video of Severn Cullis-Suzuki addressing the United Nations was played and Jennifer Nakogee, mother of Shannen Koostachin, talked to the students.

Koostachin is credited with starting Canada’s biggest Internet youth movement, called Students Helping Students, in 2007 which brought attention to education conditions in Attawapiskat. Her life came to a tragic end in June 2010 in a car accident.

Stewart linked this year’s campaign with the board’s year of witness to help conceptualize Catholic virtues.

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