Fort Severn "school" continues to operate in temporary band buildings

There are INAC announcements of new schools and crisis management but the students in Fort Severn continue to work out of temporary spaces being provided by the band. Temporary portable classroom units are now being shipped and constructed in the hope of having them ready for January 2006 while the band and INAC continue to meet about getting a new school built ....

Toronto Star - Nov. 5, 2005. 08:47 AM

      School's out too often on native reserves Kashechewan pupils latest to lose classes - Mould, bad water common in North


      On the northern edge of Ontario where the treeline meets Hudson Bay, the entire Grade 8 class of Fort Severn is repeating the year after a mould infestation shut down their school last year.

      Junior high is now taught in the restaurant.

      Down the coast of James Bay in Attawapiskat, an oil spill closed the school building five years ago. The 600 children are so weary of being scattered across 19 portables, with no fire alarms and 50 per cent more students than they were built to hold, that 30 families have moved away to cities so their children can attend proper schools.

      Up here above the 50th parallel - where schools often shut down for weeks, even years, at a time because of mould under the floorboards, dirty water in the taps, contaminated soil and hazards rarely seen, let alone tolerated, in schools elsewhere in Canada - the students of Kashechewan are just the latest victims of educational upheaval.

      At Muskrat Dam First Nation about 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, there has been no running water this week because of a filtration breakdown. All 56 students have had their school day shortened by nearly two hours to reduce the disruption of having to use outside port-a-potties. "The children are getting stressed out," says education director Roy Fiddler. "I don't know how much longer we can keep the school open without water."

      At nearby North Caribou Lake First Nation, all 140 students missed three weeks of school this fall while mould was removed from under the floors.

      And the displaced children of Kashechewan, who have been out of school for three weeks in a tainted water crisis that has seized the national spotlight, will face an uphill battle catching up, warns Grand Chief Stan Beardy of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN), which represents 49 northern reserves, including Kashechewan.

      "When you're already behind, as our children are, it doesn't take many missed days of school to get completely lost. I'm worried some of our children might miss their school year," he said. 

      And with many native children already lagging three years behind in school, educators say school closings are the last thing these children need.

      "Our schools are in a crisis situation with health and safety, there's such a serious problem with mould, building structure, water quality and crowding," says former teacher Goyce Kakegamic, NAN's deputy chief of education.

      In Kashechewan, more than 700 people were airlifted last week to Sudbury, Cochrane, Timmins, Ottawa and Sault Ste Marie after the Cree reserve declared a state of emergency Oct. 14 after E. coli bacteria was found in its water.

      Some of the children hope to resume classes Monday in Cochrane, using an empty school donated by the local Catholic school board. But plans remain unclear for the other students.

      One Thunder Bay psychologist who has worked with northern children for 20 years found that by Grade 8, the average child on one remote Ontario reserve has missed the equivalent of almost two years of school because of school closings prompted by substandard conditions. Several northern educators say it is common for schools to be closed up to 30 days per year because of equipment breakdowns.

      "Even in the poorest neighbourhoods in Toronto, students don't have to deal with schools that routinely close down because there is no heat or clean water - and these factors absolutely have an impact on children's learning," said Mary-Beth Minthorn-Biggs.

      She measured Grade 8 pupils' reading levels in Fort Severn in June and found they had dropped by two grades since the school building closed in 2004.

      Why are northern schools in such disrepair?

      Many are old, the climate is harsh and the exploding birth rate among Canada's First Nations - twice the national average - leaves even new schools bursting at the seams, say educators.

      Too, an unlucky blend of conditions often leads to a "perfect storm" for mould that can cause respiratory problems and headaches, explains one engineer who tests northern schools for health hazards. Schools often are built on low-lying muskeg that floods heavily during spring thaw, causing humidity that gets trapped behind porous drywall and in damp crawl spaces beneath the floor, accelerated by poor air circulation and lack of maintenance.

      Often the community lacks the skills to maintain the school buildings and lacks the funds to fly in outside experts.

      Moreover, schools on reserves are federally funded at about half the level of provincially funded schools, leaving many scrambling to pay salaries with little left for upkeep, says Ontario NDP Leader Howard Hampton, whose northern riding of Rainy River includes about half Ontario's northern reserves.

      "There's an atrocious double standard in education funding on reserves that leads to Third World conditions in many schools," said Hampton.

      He cites Summer Beaver, a northern fly-in reserve that changed hands this summer from provincial to federal funding; its school budget was cut to about $1 million from $1.8 million.

      But Indian and Northern Affairs Canada official Katherine Knott says she is "absolutely concerned about the disruption to students in Kashechewan ... The sooner we get started delivering the program, the better."

      In the short run, First Nation communities in Ontario's north say their schools need emergency funding from Ottawa to remove mould, improve water and expand buildings that are crowded and run down. They also need more funding for teacher training, special education and parenting programs.

      But in the long run, government handouts are not the answer, says Grand Chief Stan Beardy.

      As long as many First Nation reserves remain virtual welfare ghettoes - ranked by the United Nations at 63rd for quality of life on the international Human Development Index - native children will lag further behind.

      "We'll continue to be a burden to society as long as we're denied economic opportunity," said Beardy, who says private companies draw about $20 billion a year from NAN territory through mining and logging and tourism, yet First Nations receive less than 2 per cent back in transfer payments.

      He said Ottawa must enforce Section 35 of the Constitution and enable First Nations to share in the economic prosperity of the lands on which they live.

      "We're looking for economic participation," he said. "We're looking to share in resources, not more handouts."

      Meanwhile, Kashechewan father Gary Wesley has shipped his two sons to Timmins for school.

      Attawapiskat principal Vince Dumond braces for another winter of absenteeism from students getting sick walking between portables in wind and temperatures that plunge to -45C.

      Fort Severn father George Kakekaspan will continue to commute from Fort Severn, where he works as band manager, to Thunder Bay, where his wife now lives with their children.

"A lot of families up here have been torn apart because they move so their kids can go to school," he said. "We should be entitled to the same right as any other Canadians to have our children go to school in a safe, healthy environment."