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School’s out

The northern Ontario community of Attawapiskat opened its first elementary school in over a decade in 2014. Now it’s closed indefinitely.

Flooding closes Attawapiskat’s only elementary school

When Attawapiskat opened its new elementary school in September of 2014, the tiny First Nations community felt like it had turned a corner.

It had been 14 years since the previous school had closed due to toxic contamination from a ruptured diesel pipe, and this new, $31-million building represented an important new start.

But less than two years later, the northern Ontario reserve has had to close its new school indefinitely. A sprinkler pipe fell from the ceiling in January, flooding the first floor of the building. Repairs are expected to be completed by Feb. 17, but it’s unclear when classes will resume.

The closure is the latest challenge confronting Attawapiskat First Nation, a community of about 2,000 people near James Bay, that last year became a symbol of Canada’s First Nations suicide crisis. It declared a state of emergency after 11 people attempted suicide in a single night, and 100 attempts in seven months. The crisis has been linked to a feeling of hopelessness in the community, where black mould smothers the walls of people’s homes and there are few supports for those facing mental health issues.

“When the new building was put into place, there was the great expectation that children will once again have a normal environment in which to excel academically, and that is the long held desire of many in the community,” Attawapiskat band manager Wayne Turner told VICE News. “When you disrupt the normal social activity of a community, its impact is going to be quite significant.”

Although the school flooding has been cleaned up, the building remains closed as furniture is replaced, a new sprinkler installed, and the insurance claim settled, Turner said.

In the meantime, Attawapiskat First Nation Education Authority has been handing out homework packages to the kids at the community hall, but children are struggling to complete assignments without instructions from teachers or access to textbooks, community member Jackie Hookimaw-Witt said.

“We have a neighbour and she’s in grade six, and she’s been coming to us to help her with her assignment,” she explained. “Me and my husband, we ended up doing a full load of coursework for the kids.”

Turner was on the school’s planning and construction committee, and said the sprinkler issue came as a surprise to him. “Obviously it’s an issue of concern to see things like this happen,” he said, but added: “I have no reason to doubt the capabilities of any members of the team who built the project. In terms of due diligence, we did all the necessary oversight required.”

“What’s not normal is having to shut a school and deny children a proper education for over a month.”

He said the contractor, Penn-Co Construction Canada Ltd, which has built other projects on reserves including schools and water treatment plants, is covering the cost of damages.

Penn-Co did not return repeated calls from VICE News.

Charlie Angus, the NDP MP for the region, says it’s unacceptable that it took more than a month for contractors to be brought in to fix the damage. He says that underscores the inconsistencies in how education is handled in Indigenous communities compared to those under the provincial system — there are contingency plans for schools under the provincial systems that don’t exist for schools on reserve.

With as many as 15 people per household and mould in their homes, children don’t have adequate environments to do their homework as it is, Angus said. And with the suicide crisis, anytime children are destabilized, it can have an effect.

“I find this so frustrating because finally, after so many years, we get a beautiful school built and then we have an accident like this,” Angus told VICE News. “And, schools have accidents all the time — boilers break, water lines burst, that’s normal — but what’s not normal is having to shut a school and deny children a proper education for over a month.”

“When students lose over a month, you’re moving in on their ability to graduate for the year. That’s why we’re getting into a critical period now that things need to be fixed.”

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