First Nations Technical Institute keeps flying after flames destroy fleet

A new temporary hangar structure, donated to First Nations Technical Institute (FNTI) by KF Aerospace in January 2023, after a fire in 2022 destroyed the school’s hangar and fleet. Photo via KF Aerospace.

After a devastating fire destroyed the First Nations Technical Institute’s hangar and fleet of airplanes last year, the FNTI is preparing to welcome a new cohort of students and a rebuilt hangar.

Located in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory on the Bay of Quinte near Belleville, FNTI is an Indigenous-owned and -governed institute that has been around for over 35 years. They provide certificate, diploma, and degree credentials through partnerships with colleges and universities in Ontario.

FNTI offers an “intensive professional delivery model for students,” Vice-President of Enrolment Management and Student Services Shari Beaver observed. “We were created for those mature learners who have a lot on their plate: mothers, caregivers, people who want to carry on a full-time job but maintain success in a post-secondary environment.”

They can do this by offering credit programs where students can study intensively for one week, then have a three-week break. The school is unique for its “full-campus approach for wrap-around supports for Indigenous learners,” Beaver said.

This means that students’ frequent interaction with teachers, cultural advisors, and student success facilitators helps ensure that they get through their classwork – they are “sort of like aunties and uncles,” Beaver joked.

Cultural advisors are important, Beaver explained, since “with our programs, as much as students have regular education outcomes, they’re all tied to Indigenous ways of knowing. They’re tied back to cultural relevancy that they’d be doing in their community.”

Most of the institute’s programs are focused on human services, including Indigenous social work, Indigenous midwifery, mental health and addictions workers, early childhood education, social service workers, social workers, personal support workers, and aviation. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the institute was forced to move entirely online, which allowed them to offer programs to more locations, Beaver noted. Before the pandemic, FNTI was committed to never going fully virtual, as it didn’t fit with their model of “holding ceremony and coming together,” she explained.

But the pandemic forced the institution to pivot. “We spent the last two years being very intentional, creating Indigenous learning spaces, sitting in virtual circle, knowing it’s sacred when we share and learn together. We’re lucky to have strong faculty, strong cultural advisors, to bridge that space,” Beaver said. 

In 2023, they will move to a hybrid model, in which students can choose their preferred learning model. The aviation pilot program will remain in-person, just as the personal support worker program continues with in-person labs.

Another specialty of the institute is to deliver a program directly in individual communities. “We might go to Walpole [First Nation, in southwestern Ontario], and bring a cultural advisor and host courses in that community. So, people are learning about education and services where they’re from, but it also removes the barrier,” Beaver said.

“We can offer them these week-long intensive moments without having to worry about stressors like childcare,” she added. “We want to make sure they feel supported, so if things are going on, we’re checking in on them to ensure their mental health and wellness.” 

FNTI also offers Indigenous health and counselling services, as well as emergency bursaries for online students.

Although the institute lost its hangar and fleet, the program didn’t stop, as FNTI continues to work with private flight schools and lease several planes – keeping students in the air to maintain their hours. 

“We’re rebuilding and getting back on our feet,” Beaver said. 

Even better, on their wings.

Benjamin Powless is a British Columbia-based reporter with the Local Journalism Initiative.

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