Homes built by students for elders take shape on Maskwacis

Nathaniel Bruno isn’t sure where he’d be if it wasn’t for the construction program that’s helping him earn credits toward high school graduation. 

“It’s making me stay in school,” said the Grade 9 student from Ermineskin Ehpewapahk Alternate School.

“Last year wasn’t that good for me, but now I’m actually staying in school because I like it here, building houses.”

The 16-year-old is part of a program that teaches students from Maskwacis how to build houses in exchange for school credit. 

Maskwacis is an Indigenous community formed of four First Nations, located south of Edmonton. 

Grade 11 student Sherisse Saddleback also joined the program to gain credits toward her diploma. 

“I’m glad they changed the curriculum,” said Saddleback, who attends Ermineskin Ehpewapahk Alternate School. 

“Back in the day, it was just work with a pencil and paper.”

The 17-year-old has honed her construction skills over the last month.  

“It’s getting easier and easier because I’ve been doing it more,” she said. “It’s not that hard.”

Nathaniel Bruno and Sherisse Saddleback, both students from Ermineskin Ehpewapahk Alternate School, will receive school credit in exchange for their work. (Josee St-Onge/CBC)

Daily participation is mandatory, with the students alternating between classroom and hands-on learning. 

The six-week program is run by YC Homes, a company that specializes in building housing through educational opportunities.

“Now that I’ve gotten to work with all of the students, they’re all very into it,” said Jason Leonzio, who is supervising the Maskwacis builds. 

“We’re looking at almost full attendance every day, which is great for us and great for the students.”

Homes destined for elders

Thirty-six students from the three high schools within the Maskwacis Education School Commission are taking part in the program. 

They’re helping build an elders’ village, which will include at least eight homes. The first  three homes will be completed by the end of June. 

Each student gets the chance to learn about every phase of construction, from framing to finishing.

“There’s no higher ups on the job site,” said Leonzio. “We all push brooms, we all get in there. We do everything that needs to be done.”

Five more homes will be built over the summer by students who want to further their skills, and apprentices from the community who need more construction hours. 

Saddleback and Bruno hope their own grandparents will be selected to live in the new homes. 

The housing crisis in Maskwacis forces many families to live in crowded residences, Saddleback said.

“It will be really crowded because there’s big families around here,” she said. “My mom lived with her mom for the longest time, until we finally found our own place.”

Indigenous Services Canada provided nearly $1 million to fund the project. 

RCMP officer Morgan Kyle helps with caulking in one of the homes being built for elders on Maskwacis. (Josee St-Onge/CBC)

Community pitches in 

Community members were invited to join the students on the job site in early June, as part of mentors’ week.

“Everybody’s curious,” Leonzio said. “They see all these students, they see all these hard hats out here. They want to know what’s going on.”

Members from the Maskwacis RCMP detachment gave the students a hand last Tuesday. 

“It’s a great way to give back,” said community resource officer Cpl. Morgan Kyle. “It’s nice working with them and getting to know them a little bit more on a personal level.”

Students and helpers gain respect for each other by rolling up their sleeves together, Kyle said. 

“The RCMP gets a whole new respect for the community, what the students are doing, and how they’re helping.”

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