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Board by board, these First Nations students are building futures with a new carpentry program

In a carpentry workshop at a private school near Maskwacis, Alta., Kascey Crier puts the finishing touches on a black skateboard she has built herself.

The words “Skateboarding is not a crime” are spelled out in block letters across the bottom of the board.

“It’s probably the first year I’m actually excited about school,” Crier, 16, said in an interview last week. “There’s a reason for it now.”

Carpentry is helping Crier and other high school students carve out new paths for themselves at Mamawi Atosketan, a K-12 Seventh-day Adventist school that serves First Nations students.

The private school is in central Alberta’s Ponoka County, about nine kilometres southwest of Maskwacis.

The optional dual-credit carpentry program recently launched at Mamawi Atosketan allows students to earn a year toward their professional carpentry designation before graduation.

Dual-credit programs are designed to help students make transitions to post-secondary education or the workplace, according to Alberta Education.

For Crier, the carpentry program has already changed her view on school — and opened her eyes to life’s possibilities.

Where she says she once had a bad attitude, she now sits at the front of the class listening attentively to her teacher. 

Assisting classmates with their projects has earned Crier the title of peer mentor. She has also won a spot on the school’s honour role.

A man and a young woman in a workshop.
Teacher Jonathan Belinsky and student Kascey Crier work on skateboards in the carpentry workshop. (David Bajer/CBC)

As another student’s drill whirred in the background, Crier talked about her future. She plans to build her own home, renovate her kokum’s house and launch a business building skateboards.

She praises her teacher, Jonathan Belinsky, a certified teacher and Red Seal carpenter.

“He’s a genuine person, a caring person and someone who just helps you get through school and motivates you,” Crier said. “Not a lot of teachers motivate me to keep going every day.”

Man with thick black glasses and a black t-shirt emblazoned with yellow Mamawi school logo stands on the grass in front of the industrial arts centre.
Students say their teacher Jonathan Belinsky, a Red Seal carpenter, is patient, caring and motivating. (David Bajer/CBC)

Belinsky arrived at the private school last year, ready to help students overcome their challenges and shine. Many of the kids’ loved ones have died too soon. Some are in provincial care.

Students take a 10-minute bus ride from Maskwacis and enter the school’s main building. It’s painted in yellow, red, white and black — the colours of the sacred medicine wheel, nestled against rolling grassy hills and wide-open sky.

High-fiving the principal on the way in, students draw woodsy smoke over their heads from a smudge in the lobby where their paintings and hand-crafted jingle dresses and jean jackets are on display, including several items already sold.

Two carpentry students smile at the camera with the industrial centre in the background
Carpentry students Dallas Saddleback and Tashay Headman. (David Bajer/CBC)

Carpentry class is in another building, the industrial arts centre, made possible by a donation of more than $500,000 from Ptarmigan Charitable Foundation and Bird Construction.

Students sip on Starbucks drinks as they work through a thick carpentry manual, guided by Belinsky. He blends technical information with practical advice on how to build a successful business.

In the adjoining workshop, Belinsky pivots between students, offering one-on-one instruction as they drill holes into skateboards and eventually attach wheels.

The aim of the project is to help students realize that instead of just riding a skateboard, they can make money and have fun doing it, Belinsky said.

Tashay Headman, 15, said completing a heart-shaped cutting board leaves her with a sense of accomplishment.

Dallas Saddleback, 17, is designing and building a bright blue skateboard with a yellow happy face.

He’s dreaming of following in the carpentry footsteps of his uncle, and setting an example for his nieces and nephews “so I feel like I could show them this stuff when they’re older.”

Smiling woman in orange blazer poses in front of the school.
Acting principal Kim Harrington says staff are very proud of their students’ achievements. (David Bajer/CBC)

‘Inspiring Nations’

Later the same day, the class of nine begins unloading materials to build a gazebo. In July, the students will teach other youth at Maskwacis how to make their own skateboards.

Next year, they will construct tiny homes, learning how to work as a crew while expanding their skills, from roofing to plumbing.

“Each and every single one of us makes Canada a better place,” Belinsky said. “We need to spread our joy and our learning everywhere.

“It’s taking what we’re doing here and inspiring [First] Nations around us because we don’t want it to be just about a school. We want it to be inspiring young people to see the hope and dreams that they have.”

‘We’re so proud of them’

Mamawi Atosketan’s elementary school opened in 2003. In 2018, the school opened a new building for high school students.

Teachers glow as they speak about their students achievements in such varied areas as cosmetology, welding and fancy dance competitions. The school has also seen the launches of several business ventures.

“Our hearts are really with these kids,” says acting principal Kim Harrington, known to the students as Mrs. H.

“We want the best for them. They become our kids. They really do. And we’re so proud of them,” Harrington says.

“We want our kids who graduate from Mamawi to be able to be a cut above the rest. We want them to have everything they need to succeed in this world.”

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