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Guelph teachers take their talents to First Nation community (8 photos)

An isolated but rewarding teaching experience for a group of Guelph residents who moved to the far north

Kashechewan FIrst Nation — In September, most Guelph schoolteachers packed a box and headed a few kilometres to school to start the year.

Meanwhile, Mahdi, Doug and Anastasia Edwards were packing more than 20 boxes to fly to their teaching positions 1,400 kilometres due north of Guelph in the First Nations community of Kashechewan. Located a few hundred kilometres north of Moose Factory, their school, Francine J. Wesley Secondary, is home to about 180 students in a town of 2,000—a beautiful but isolated Cree community on the edge of James Bay.

Mahdi (he requested his last name not be used) came to Canada from Iran with an engineering degree in 2016. He has since graduated with a Master’s degree in international development and political philosophy from the University of Guelph.

“I wanted to help people — this is my passion,” he said.

After teaching Afghani refugee children in Iran for UNICEF, international development seemed a natural choice for Mahdi.

“The things I’ve learned here will stay with me for the rest of my career,” he says. “Coming from an ethnic minority in Iran, I empathize with people who are ostracized. Canadians accepted me with open arms. It was amazing. I hope I can do the same in return with people here in Kashechewan where I’m teaching mathematics. It is very fulfilling when you see students learn.” 

Mahdi’s face brightens when asked about his home in Guelph.

“It is a small thing but sitting in the university centre drinking coffee and having banana bread, I miss it. And, having robust discussions with my professor Dr. Monique Deveaux, whom I greatly respect. These are some of my fondest memories.”

Husband and wife team Doug and Anastasia Edwards also come to “Kash” as locals call it, from their home in Guelph.

“We own a house in Guelph and return during the summer, but we’re into our second year of teaching in the north,” Doug says.

Anastasia attended the University of Western Ontario and Ontario College of Art (OCAD).

“Students are surrounded by nature, I think it adds to their creative gifts — it really helps them see things differently,” she says. “So many of my students have a natural gift for painting and drawing. I’m here just to facilitate and encourage their artistic talent and help them express themselves through their medium.” 

Doug Edwards grew up in Guelph, attending GCVI and the U of G. In Kashechewan he teaches a variety of business and technology subjects.

“When Anastasia first started investigating teaching I thought I’d come up with her to help at the water-treatment plant, a skill I’ve learned,” he recalls. “But they had an opening to teach.”

After phone interviews, Doug and Anastasia arrived in Kashechewan sight unseen. Their boxes arrived a few days later. 

There are challenges — the biggest one is access by airplane only, except during the winter. The 400-kilometre winter road gives people a chance to drive south or out to Timmins, which is about 600 kilometres one-way.

These Guelphites miss things back home like family and friends. The northern store has most groceries and inside there is a Tim Horton’s — the only one for hundreds of miles.

Doug and Anastasia attend both the local churches which are led by Indigenous ministers. The Anglican minister also happens to be the elected chief.

“It is another way to join the community,” says Doug. “It’s a good feeling to be part of the community, especially when you see kids developing and seeing a wider world beyond the dyke that holds back the Albany River.”

Doug says seeing growth in kids helps to make it worthwhile.

“There are many opportunities here for people wanting to know a different Canada and willing to teach where they can make a real difference. We need more people to apply.”