While Canada’s latest census figures show an aging population, a First Nation in Manitoba has one of the country’s largest percentages of people under the age of 15.
In Norway House Cree Nation, about 500 kilometres north of Winnipeg, 34.7 per cent of the population is under 15 — more than double the national average of 16.9 per cent, according to Statistics Canada 2021 census results released Wednesday, focused on the age-related data.
The federal agency said two Canadian communities “stand out for their very high proportion of children under 15 years” — Norway House and Mackenzie County, Alta., where 36.2 per cent of the population is under 15 years.
Mackenzie County has a large Mennonite community, while Norway House has a large Indigenous population — both groups with a relatively high birth rate, according to Statistics Canada.
“I noticed about 20 years ago that there was a large population of young people, and there wasn’t a whole lot to do,” said Deon Clarke, a band councillor in Norway House Cree Nation.
With the growing youth population, Clarke was inspired to open a youth centre for teens, which has pool tables, air hockey, and video games. The community also has an indoor play centre for the younger kids.
“What inspires me is seeing that our young people are missing out on what other Canadians take for granted,” said Clarke.
The community wants to see recreational centres similar to those in urban centres, he said.
The growing youth population is not a surprise for Paige Miswagon, 27, who had her son, Jace Miswagon, when she was 17.
“After I got pregnant and I had my son, it hit me like a ton of bricks that there was very, very little support for what I needed,” said Miswagon.
“I had never learned about birth control at that point. I never learned about contraception at that point.”
Issues like overcrowding, lack of housing, and the painful legacy of residential school all affected Miswagon as a young mother.
Many people with children of their own are still battling the impacts of residential school, she says.
“Our young people are having to, I think, work and grow with their parents, compared to, you know, maybe doing more just child things.”
After having her son, Miswagon went back to school to become a paramedic, and worked for Norway House. But for the last couple of years, she’s dedicated her time to making art and teaching youth in her community to do the same.
“We do a little club every weekend.… I’m trying to bring back some lost art to the kids, like beading,” said Miswagon.
“We’ve taught them how to handle leathers, furs, also we’ve done birch bark biting, which is really hard.”
Pressure on schools
The growing youth population is also taxing on Norway House Cree Nation’s schools: Helen Betty Osborne Ininiw Education Resource Centre and the Jack River School.
“It’s great that the census has shown what we’ve known for quite a while,” said Reg Klassen, the chief superintendent of Frontier School Division, which includes Norway House.
“We’re going to be in trouble probably next year — we’re going to be extremely crowded. The only reason we haven’t experienced that excessively in the last couple of years is because the pandemic has caused us to do different things.”
Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, students in Norway House attended school on alternate days to reduce class sizes and minimize the spread of the illness.
The biggest jump in the class numbers will likely be seen in kindergarten, Klassen says. Over 150 new students are registered for the fall.
“It’s difficult to keep up. We know that Norway House chief and council is working with the government on a feasibility study, and we’ve already looked at plans of where a new school might be built.”
Despite growing class sizes, Miswagon says the schools in Norway House “go above and beyond for these kids.
“I have nothing but good things to say about the teachers…. A lot our teachers are Indigenous people, people from our community,” said Miswagon.
“When I think back to when the Helen Betty Osborne school was first built … that was one of the first places I had access to resources as a young person, like counselling and seeing a nurse.”
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