Charla Moonias lost her friends, her language and the connection to her culture after she left her northern Ontario First Nation at 14 years old to go to school hundreds of kilometres away.

There was little support available as she struggled with addictions, tried to cope with the suicides of friends and family and grappled with poor mental health. 

She was eventually able to graduate – an achievement she's incredibly proud of – but her experience left her determined to help other Indigenous youth like her. 

Now, at 26, Moonias works at an organization that's among a number of institutions trying to support Indigenous teenagers through what can be a fraught period far from home. 

Such efforts are needed, parents, students and educators say, to allow students from remote First Nations a good chance at a successful high school experience. 

"I was just getting into powwows and dancing – I danced in a regalia for the first time when I was 14 – and then I went to high school and then I never did it again," said Moonias. 

"Here now, it's different."

Dozens of First Nations across northern Ontario do not have high schools, despite long calls for change. That leaves children and families with an often unbearable decision: leave home at as young as 13 years old to get an education or drop out of school and stay home.

Between 2000 and 2011, seven Indigenous youths and young adults who moved to Thunder Bay, Ont., for school died in the city. Those deaths spurred calls for action and a 2016 coroner's inquest, with the jury urging more support from the federal and provincial governments. 

Recent years have seen small steps toward success, although those who work with Indigenous youth say they need steady, long-term funding from governments to keep making progress. 

TERRIFIED AND ALONE

There was little support available when Moonias left Neskantaga First Nation, which is accessible only by air or winter road, to go to Grade 9 about 700 kilometres away in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. 

She lasted three weeks before homesickness, excessive drinking and getting into trouble had her on a plane back home. 

She stayed in Neskantaga for the rest of the semester, then tried a different school in Thunder Bay, where she found more freedom, more drugs and more alcohol. She started taking Percocets, an opioid pain pill, to feel better. 

Moonias and her boarding family clashed, she said, so she left and slept in a shelter. One night after too many drinks and too many pills, she ended up in hospital.

"I was terrified and I was alone," Moonias said, adding that she bolted back to the shelter and later found out her boarding home family never reported her missing.

Moonias then found someone from Neskantaga in the city who took her in and encouraged her to go to school, which helped her complete Grade 9. 

When she returned home that summer, she had to deal with the fallout of an even more serious problem: a suicide crisis had gripped the community. Three of her best friends had killed themselves.

"I was struggling, I didn't know how to deal with my feelings," she said. "So I decided to leave."

Her mother, sister and brother lived in Sioux Lookout, Ont., a town of some 5,000 people about 350 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay. Moonias moved in with her sister, who helped connect with her counselling services, and went back to school for Grade 10. But her drinking caused problems and her sister eventually kicked her out.

Moonias then moved through a series of living situations – a women's shelter, a boarding house, her brother's home, her father's new residence in another First Nation – and eventually lived with a classmate and his family in Sioux Lookout. 

Her years away from home came at a steep cost: she can speak little of her native language, Oji-Cree, and never felt connected with her roots.

But her graduation in 2016 was a big moment, which many family members showed up to witness.

"Everyone was so proud of me," she said. "And I was so proud of myself – there were so many issues from being homeless to my addictions."

Now, Moonias has been sober for three years and is working as an acting education co-ordinator with Northern Nishnawbe Education Council, which runs two schools for Indigenous kids, one in Thunder Bay and another in Sioux Lookout. 

The support the organization and its schools provide can help improve what is a tough time for many Indigenous youth pursing an education, she said. 

"It feels more like a community than a school," she said.

HOLISTIC APPROACH

In Thunder Bay, a few rays of hope have emerged for Indigenous students far from home. 

The Matawa Education and Care Centre in the city just opened a dorm for 100 students. About 200 students attend the school, which started in 2010 with 30 students. 

The school takes a holistic approach to education, mixing academics with cultural programming, mental wellness services and land-based programming. There are workshops and crafts after school, weekly bowling and movie-theatre outings and an outdoor rink. 

There are drivers to get students wherever they need to go and workers on call 24 hours a day should a student go missing. 

"We are trying to ensure no student is left without some kind of support," said school principal Brad Battiston.

Sharon Nate, the school and care centre's executive director, knows first hand how hard it can be for First Nation students. 

She left Eabametoong First Nation when she was 14 years old to attend school in Thunder Bay. She had to live in the homes of white strangers who made her wipe down the shower and bathroom after each use, which left her with the feeling she and her heritage were dirty. 

She was late coming home one night, so her boarding family locked her out, forcing her to sleep in a park. 

Some schools are now helping First Nation students more than she was ever helped, she said. But challenges remain.

"Every year since we've been open, we've lost at least one student," she said.

Last year, one student was killed, another died by suicide and two others died of overdoses, she said.

"A lot of our youth come with a lot of trauma from everything that's impacted our communities, like the suicide, the high death rate, the alcoholism, the drug abuse," Nate said.

"There's a high-risk situation in this school, not because these kids are bad, it's because they're hurting."

The 2016 inquest into the deaths of the seven Indigenous students who moved to Thunder Bay for school issued a number of recommendations focused on reliable, ongoing government funding. But Battiston and Nate said that is still lacking. 

Every year, the administration spends hundreds of hours applying for federal and provincial grants. They are usually successful, but would prefer the funding to be stable and long term. 

"It would be better if we could spend more time focusing on being educators than being government proposal writers," Battiston said.

 'DREADFUL' DECISION 

In Neskantaga, Wayne Moonias – unrelated to Charla Moonias – said goodbye to his son Logan once again one day in August before the teen made the 450-kilometre trip to Thunder Bay to begin Grade 11 at Matawa.

Parents in northwestern Ontario First Nations face a "dreadful" decision as the start of the school year looms, Wayne Moonias said. 

Thunder Bay offers a chance for an education, but also "hasn't been very good in terms of how they often times treat our Aboriginal population and our students," he said.

But he believes schools such as Matawa are what First Nation kids need.

Such schools "can address the issues like mental health, the homelessness, self-esteem and, most importantly, the hopelessness that our young people tend to deal with," he said. 

"They're trying to close the gaps for our students."

In November, the Chiefs of Ontario, a co-ordinating body representing the 133 First Nations, released two reports examining the outcomes of First Nation students in provincially funded schools.

The analysis found 40 per cent of First Nation students attended school at least 90 per cent of the time, compared to 67 per cent of the general student population in the 2018-19 school year.

Between 2016-17 and 2020-21, 60 per cent of First Nation students graduated within five years, compared to 89 per cent of the general student population. First Nation students were also suspended at a rate more than double the provincial average. 

Ontario Regional Chief Glen Hare said the gaps "have resulted in systemic discrimination."

"This continues to grow and has created significant barriers to positive educational outcomes and achievements for First Nation learners in comparison to the non-First Nations population," Hare wrote in a statement.

COMFORTING ENVIRONMENT

One cold, drizzly August afternoon at a park in Thunder Bay, Logan Moonias reflected on his schooling. The 19-year-old now loves going to Matawa, but it's been a difficult journey from his days in Neskantaga.

He first went to a public school in Thunder Bay as a 14-year-old, but felt overwhelmed by the number of students there. A few months in, he transferred to Matawa, where he joined some friends from Neskantaga.

He still found it hard to be so far from home but being in a school with many Indigenous students and teachers comforted him. 

"I didn't really have to worry a lot about getting harassed or being treated with racism," he said.

Moonias didn't take school seriously at first and found himself drinking too much. He used alcohol to cope, he said, and became addicted to it. 

But he got help from the school.

"I don't have those temptations anymore because I don't really need that," he said.

He misses Neskantaga, particularly the boat rides, fall moose hunts and bonfires with his buddies.

But he is also excited for the path ahead, wherever that journey takes him.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 19, 2023.