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PHOTOS: Secwepemc school in Chase opens new high school

It was a bright and sunshiney day in Chase, today, literally and metaphorically as the grand opening of the new Chief Atahm High School took place.

The new school building is a big step for the Chief Atahm School. The first incarnation of the school formed over 25 years ago, as a language nest for preschool children.

Now it goes to Grade 10, with full immersion in Secwepemc language up to Grade 4. The new high school building will also allow for more research and publication of Secwepemc language educational material says Dr. Kathryn Michel, who develops the school's curriculum.

"I think it really means (we're) making sure whatever our ancestors taught us, we're bringing into the future and that it's not something that is obsolete," she says. "Our language and our culture and our teachings actually can keep up with the modern world, and the way we teach and our perspective of the world is still relevant today."

"That's what this means, we really have a basis and a foundation of being Secwepemc."

As part of an effort to bring technology into the classroom, Michel has developed games for kids to learn Secwepemc, working with an Irish company.

Principal Rob Matthew, who's the principal for both the Chief Atahm School and Chief Atahm High School, says a lot has to be done from scratch when teaching in Secwepemc.

"You have to do the math, science, socials, history, all of those, but we also do all of our traditions in the language; land-based gathering, songs, dance," he says. "We need a place to develop our learning resources."

"We're at a stage now of production and capability that we need a production centre, a research centre, archive centre, desktop publishing," he adds. "All those things you need to develop a wide range of learning resources, that's in the building."

Adams Lake Indian Band Kukpi7 (Chief) Cliff Arnouse adds that while technology plays a role in the education at Chief Atahm, so does the location.

"It's not only the new technology but going back and teaching on our land and teaching on some of our sacred areas," he says. "This is a different way of teaching, going right to the source and teaching there."

While the school included Grades 7 and 8 in the past, they had no permanent space. With the opening of the high school, there's permanent space for those grades, plus the new Grade 9 and 10 classes.

"We've had an elementary school for many many years, but the parents wanted to go further on rather than transfer to the public school at Grade 7," says Matthew. "This coming year we'll have up to Grade 10. We'll see how that works, and we'll give ourselves a year to then work on Grade 11 and 12."

Adding Grades 11 and 12 add additional issues, as there's new accreditation needed and provincial exams.

The new building, which broke ground in March, was built by Horizon North. The cost of the structure was covered by the federal government (more than $2.5 million) and the local Adams Lake Indian Band (which put in a couple of hundred thousand dollars, according to Matthew). Equipment and furnishing the school fell to the parents, who've raised more than $150,000, in addition to their other fundraising efforts for the school.

Minister for Indigenous Services Seamus O'Regan was in Chase for the grand opening, toured the building with Arnouse and spoke with Michel about her work.

"The Secwepemc people have been leaders in this country in taking control of the protection and encouragement of their language with their children," he says. "It's a celebration of not just a school, it's a celebration of a new way of doing things. That language is important, culture is important. Children need to know who they are in this world and that's how you make your way in the world."

Arnouse says there's a certain pride in seeing the school project grow and expand. He says, with a smile, one day there could even be a university.

"The revitalization of the Secwepemc language... is long overdue," he says. "And it's great to see everyone is taking it very seriously."

"I would say all of Canada has something to learn from this place," O'Regan says. "And we're learning, finally."