FNTI turns nothing into something for Indigenous students

TYENDINGA MOHAWK TERRITORY 

That’s all it took for decades of hopes and dreams and history at First Nations Technical Institute to disappear in a huge inferno that its president, Suzanne Brant, remembers like it was yesterday.

“It looked like a horror show,” Brant recalled during an interview at FNTI, where efforts continue to rebuild following the destruction of the nearly 80-year-old airport hangar at the school in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory.

Brant had settled in for the night on Feb. 24 when she received the call from the dean that the airport hangar, a central piece of the country’s only Indigenous aviation program, was ablaze.

“I don't even think it took me two minutes to throw on gloves and I was out the door,” Brant recalled, admitting she’s still overcome with emotion when remembering the fateful evening.

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As a teenager, Suzanne Brant knew her calling.

“I had a vision when I was 18 that I was going to work at FNTI,” Brant said, adding that then newly opened school was the vision of her uncle, Tyendinaga Mohawk Chief Earl Hill. “This was 36 years ago.” At the time, with the emergence of the digital age on the horizon, Brant wanted to be part of FNTI and the dawning of the computer age.

While it would be decades before the vision became reality, Brant could see even as teenager what an important part of Indigenous culture FNTI would become.

“I understood what my uncle wanted for FNTI,” she said. “This idea of being able to train administrators and build the capacity in our community.”

**

As she raced toward the school, Brant ended up behind Tyendinaga Fire Department trucks, which were also headed to the scene. What she didn’t know was the trucks couldn’t gain access to the blaze from the east on Airport Road, which would have been the shorter route, valuable moments during such a massive fire. Instead, they were forced to come down 49 Highway to access the site.

“(Firefighters) couldn't come in the other way,” Brant said. “They couldn't see, the smoke was so black.”

Mere moments later, all was lost.

“I'm watching the doors collapse,” Brant recalled, her voice trailing off as if she were still watching the inferno.

“There’s nothing they can do,” Brant was told by the Tyendinaga Police officer on scene. “I was just in shock.”

The images, the sounds, the smell … will not soon be forgotten.

“You could hear the planes blow up,” Brant recounted somberly.

**

The hangar, built in 1943, was not made to withstand the inferno. In fact, it was designed to collapse inward in the event of a fire.

“It was designed to collapse in 14 minutes,” Brant said.

Despite extensive efforts, forensic investigators were unable to conclusively determine what caused the blaze.

The building’s security cameras picked up the area where the blaze started, in one corner of the building, Brant said, but that part of the building wasn’t used and there was nothing officials could pinpoint as the cause. Pests and arson were also ruled out.

“The only thing they could (guess) is that we had been having high winds in January that may have shifted the building somehow and there could have been an arc in some of the electrical (wiring),” she said.

The blaze burned so quickly and so hot, investigators were left to sift through unrecognizable wreckage, unable to even distinguish the planes’ engines.

Thirteen planes, five of them brand new, were destroyed in the blaze. Along with them, a piece of Tyendinaga history.

Brant is still shaking as she recalls that fateful evening.

“Everybody in the community loved the hangar,” Brant said. “There were a lot of memories there,” she said, referencing weddings, events and ceremonies. “There was a lot of activity that had happened in there. Even though the infrastructure was old, it had a real beauty to it, you know.”

**

Within hours of watching the program’s hangar destroyed, Brant and the administrative team at FNTI made a pledge to press on. And press on they did.

“We didn't stop,” she said, adding that the group was on a phone call at 3 a.m. that night coming up with a plan. “When these kinds of events happen, you have to have something to bring everybody back to.”

During that call, the dean brought everybody back to focusing on the students.

“That was it,” Brant said. “That’s all we had to do. What do (students) need? And everybody mobilized.”

Within days, students were temporarily sent home as officials at FNTI worked to find them placements to continue their flight training at facilities near their homes. Any students at the school were there only for flight training as Covid had forced the rest of the program into home schooling.

“We contracted those facilities because (students) have to have 250 hours before they're done the program, which meant we had to keep them in planes,” Brant said.

Industry and the public stepped up in a huge way, Brant said, with Seneca College offering to lease two of its aircraft to FNTI, while a Kingston man offered up his personal aircraft to keep the program in flight. Public fundraising, which continues, also helped offset the costs.

New planes were ordered, and plans got underway for the construction of a new hangar. In the meantime, a 7,000-square-foot temporary shelter will be constructed to house the aircraft until the new hangar is completed, sometime between spring and summer 2023, Brant said.

Everything was insured, Brant said, but added that the process for replacing such a massive loss takes time.

“It was only a matter of a few months (before) we started bringing back (students) because we had the planes online again and we were able to start flying them here,” Brant said.

From the ashes of the destroyed hangar rose hope, and change.

“We took in 10 new students in September,” Brand said. “We didn't stop our enrolment. We have a waiting list of 50 students. We've got two students who just graduated last Friday.”

***

Brant looks outside when asked to put herself in the same spot where she stood in February, watching devastation unfold before her very eyes, and picture her vision for the future.

“I can see it,” she said, a smile crossing her face. “We've got a visual that is beautiful … (for) this whole campus. A new residence, a new hangar and a new 50,000-square-foot net zero building. I can stand there and I can see it all.

“I can see gardens,” she continued, adding that all of the indigenous plants on site have been saved and are being grown in a greenhouse, awaiting transplanting in the spring. “We've been working with the Nature Conservancy of Canada. This whole area will be populated with growth that is all indigenous.”

She looks a little further outside.

“I'm standing there and I see it,” Brant said, a calmness in her voice. “You walk into our new net zero building and you feel like you're still outdoors because there's nature all around you. There's a boardwalk going through the waterways over here,” she pointed. “People can see traditional medicines, they can see our pawpaw trees with fruit on them because that’s an indigenous species. I see it all and I see happy, healthy, whole staff and students and communities. We’re an example of you can take nothing and turn it into something that any community could have.”

Jan Murphy is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Belleville Intelligencer. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.

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Taking flight again

What: First Nations Technical institute is proposing the creation of a 50,000-square-foot academic and administration building, air hangar, renovated runway and taxi, student accommodations, a greenhouse, simulator and Indigenous Learning Centre.

Fire: On Feb. 24, a massive fire in the airport hangar destroyed the building and its contents, which included 13 planes, five of which were new.

Cleanup: The entire area where the fire took place had to be cleaned up, including the removal of soils that were contaminated in the blaze.

New digs: A temporary 7,000-sq-foot shelter will be erected to house the aircraft until the new hangar is completed.

Locations: First Nations Technical Institute operates at two locations, 3 Old York Road, which is the main campus, and the airfield at 314 Airport Road.

Did you know: FNTI’s enrolment has increased 123% over the last five years.

Story by Jan Murphy, Belleville Intelligencer, for the Local Journalism Initiative