First Nations school gets new gym, classrooms 

Twenty-five years ago Leonard Andrew, the young chief of the Mount Currie Band, strolled through a dense forest close to the Lillooet Lake Road.

He didn’t have a specific vision for the future of this area but he could sense the potential for something great.

Now a quarter of a century later that forest has been transformed into a bustling community of 700 people, about half the population of the Mount Currie band. At the heart of this community lies the Xit’olacw Community School.

Last Friday Andrew, who was chief in the ’80s and was recently re-elected chief again, cut the ceremonial ribbon proclaiming the official opening of the school’s expansion. It seemed that some of those long-ago visions, dreamed up in a stroll through the woods, were now fulfilled.

"It’s a very proud moment," he said while on a tour of the new wing of classrooms looking out over imposing snow-capped peaks.

"It’s what we’ve been striving for – the education of our future."

In addition to the new wing, the expansion also includes a full-size gymnasium for the students and community members. The school can now accommodate up to 342 students from nursery school to Grade 12, as well as day-care and adult education.

On Friday, May 30 the community celebrated the official grand opening of the school’s expansion.

Hand drummers and the Iswalh Dancers lent an air of solemnity to the ceremony, which was held in the new gym.

"Be proud of it," said Andrew to the students and parents in the gym.

"Make good use of it because it’s a learning centre for our children."

For years education has been given a top priority in this First Nations band just north of Pemberton.

The first school, run by the Lil’wat community, opened in Mount Currie 30 years ago.

That school was active until the Xit’olacw Community School first opened its doors in 1987, at which time all the students transferred to the new school.

Set against the backdrop of mountains and forest, the school is central to the Xit’olacw community.

MP Stephen Owen, Secretary of State Western Economic Division and Indian Affairs and Northern Development, who was on hand at the official opening, praised community members and parents for making education a focal point for the Mount Currie Band.

"The school is absolutely central to any community," he said.

Calling the area one of the most beautiful places on earth, Owen said that the school "comes as close as anything could to equalling the promise of the valley."

He encouraged the students to strive forward and achieve their goals, particularly by looking to the role models in their own community.

"There’s nothing that can’t be accomplished with a good education," he said, pointing to Mount Currie band member Lorna Williams who is now the director of the Aboriginal Education Enhancement Branch with the Ministry of Education.

Before Friday’s ceremony began, Andrew took a few people aside and pointed to a picture hanging at the school’s entrance. The black and white shot, showing a younger version of the chief, was snapped when the school first opened its doors in 1987.

For the past 25 years, Andrew has served the Mount Currie Band as the operations manager. He will now be retiring from that position to assume his full time role as Chief again.

Andrew was honoured at Friday’s ceremony for his dedication to the community.

Engineers Gordon Leidal and Frank Belfry, who were instrumental in helping Andrew realize the dream in Xit’olacw, honoured the Chief for his work and dedication.

Every time the residents turn on the water in their taps "it’s because Leonard has made that happen," said Belfry.

But the chief was modest about his accomplishments and the praise from his colleagues.

"It was made easy by the people’s mandate," he said.

"I think the key to it all was ‘don’t take no for an answer.’"

Looking to the future, Andrew said the community is hoping to turn the temporary post-secondary college into a more permanent fixture, in addition to building a teacher’s residence.

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