Toronto Star
November 5, 2005


Kashechewan pupils latest to lose classes

Mould, bad water common in North

Louise Brown

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

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

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."

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