But then change started to roll across the Prairies. The struggling wheat trade could no longer support the area, and young people started to leave in big numbers. With fewer than 1,600 year-round residents between them, Ashern and the municipality of Sigunes were at risk of becoming little more than a place to retire and a stopover for American fishermen and hunters on their way north.
Like much of rural Manitoba and Saskatchewan, Ashern began to realize that its future would be increasingly aboriginal. If the secondary school, for example, didn't start to draw more reserve students, its population of 220 or so would dwindle in time. The province also recognized the benefit in drawing federally funded native students, but it knew that, to do that, its schools had to change. Too many were known, at least on reserves, as bastions of racism.
"They must believe that their traditions have value in this school."
In September, 2000, Ashern Central conducted a confidential survey, asking aboriginal students how often they felt like "a valuable part of the school." Roughly half replied, "Rarely or never."
To create a more welcoming environment, the school has promoted native issues as much as volleyball. A mixed group of students was organized to deck the halls with posters of successful natives such as Gerry Auger, the Cree entrepreneur in Alberta who once lived on the street, and Dr. Stanley Vollant, the first member of Quebec's Montagnais people to become a surgeon. The school also brought in high-profile native speakers and decided, after a student from Fairford wrote an essay describing the cold stare of discrimination, to hold an anti-racism day.
Hull knows there are some barriers, such as distance, which he cannot bring down. For those students who come by school bus, the early-morning pickups, which start at 7 a.m., can be enough to make someone drop out early. Moreover, the need to rush to the bus when classes end keeps many reserve kids from joining teams and clubs.
But Hull thinks he can at least lay out a welcome mat. In many classes, an aboriginal point of view is now included in course material. The school itself is also expected to promote traditional native values such as belonging, mastery, independence and generosity. In the library, the native sensitivity program has added such works as The Seven Grandfathers, Little Boy and the April Raintree series of books about the struggles of a native girl growing up.
The one thing Fairford students miss by coming to Ashern is training in Saulteau, the Ojibway dialect spoken by their people. Roseanna says she would rather study French.
In time, however, teaching at Ashern may be transformed. Manitoba, along with other western provinces and the northern territories, is trying to extend integrated education by examining the very approach schools take to native students. Until now, the typical reserve kid - shy, insecure, probably ill-prepared by his or her primary school - has been shunted aside. Placed in a special learning group, or simply left at the back of a class, he or she has dropped out eventually almost as a matter of course.
To change that, the province now looks for "distinctive" learning outcomes for aboriginal students, using a different yardstick to mea-ure their progress. for example, a social-studies unit allows native students to learn about democracy on their reserves, rather than sticking to what the rest of their class studies.
The government is also pushing schools to look at the home front, where learning problems often start. In the future, tutors may visit students on the reserve, rather than expect them to wait after school.
Some school divisions have created mentoring teams to help native kids adjust to mixed schools, and Brandon has launched Circle of Friends, a program to find reading buddies for reserve children, who often reach high school barely able to understand the written word. There is also talk of putting elders in provincial schools to coach and discipline native students who might turn away from a non-native guidance counsellor.
Hull would like to go further and see history teachers explain the native view of creation (that the Creator put aboriginal people in Canada), along with the Bering Strait explanation of early migration. He knows such teaching would offend the many Christian fundamentalists on local reserves, whose own view of creation is excluded from the provincial classroom. But he believes the school system must find novel ways to make native children feel included.
"They must believe that their traditions have value in this school," he says.