Garden Hill chief wants to keep students in community while damage to high school is assessed

Frustrations are mounting in Garden Hill First Nation as some students face the prospect of losing another year of education while the high school is closed due to significant mold and rust.

“There’s a lot of concerned parents calling me that they don’t want their kids to redo the school year,” said Charles Knott, chief of the remote fly-in community in northeastern Manitoba.

“They missed the school year already due to the pandemic.”

The high school was built in 1994 and usually hosts around 500 students in grades 6 to 12, but it was shut down in May of 2021 due to pandemic restrictions. Educators made the decision at that time to have students repeat the 2020-21 school year as not enough of the curriculum was covered that year.

Due to the mold and rust, the building was again closed on Oct. 9. An assessment on the school’s condition is likely to take until January 2023, leaving students in the lurch.

The current lack of education has parents in the community hoping that a solution can be found to avoid distance learning.

“Some parents, they don’t want their kids to be sent out to go to school outside the community,” said Knott.

“We don’t wanna see that too.”

Charles Knott, chief of Garden Hill First Nation, speaks at a Red Sucker Lake press conference on Nov. 2. (Warren Kay/CBC)

Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) met with community leadership on Nov. 24, and Knott hopes to use provided funding to bring remote learning arrangements into the community.

This could include “equipping students with tablets and with take-home packages for students to work on while at home,” according to an ISC spokesperson.

ISC and Garden Hill leadership are also working to bring in temporary classrooms and to upgrade the community’s limited internet, but Knott isn’t sure of the feasibility of those options due to limited funding coupled with the possible cost of roof repair.

“I haven’t gotten a report from the school, the education, but they are trying whatever they can to try and educate our kids,” he said. “But I don’t know if it will succeed.”

Knott also reached out to Patty Hajdu, minister of Indigenous Services, in an attempt to find a solution, but said he had not heard back at this time.

School conditions assessed

No students have suffered any long-term adverse health effects due to the mold, but one student did have difficulty breathing before leaving the area, Knott said.

The most significant contributor to the mold is the roof, Knott said, as it’s not able to drain water properly, so water ends up on and inside the walls. Improved drainage also led to significant rust.

“It doesn’t look good,” said Knott. “Not just the mold problem. There’s rust on the ceiling. There’s rust in the ceilings and on the walls too.”

The William Sale Partnership, an outside engineering consultancy firm hired by Garden Hill, is currently doing a final assessment of the school’s condition but there’s more work that needs to be done.

Depending on what the results are, Knott said the community will either repair the damage or condemn the building.

“It’s gonna take ’till the end of January to complete a full assessment of what needs to be done,” he said.

The reason for the long wait is to allow WSP to undergo a comprehensive search of the entire school to understand the full extent of the mold and rust, Knott says.

“They only checked a few areas,” said Knott, referring to the initial assessment. “They have to go right through everything to do a full one. So it’s gonna take time, like to check the walls and everything. That’s what we were told.”

Talks of a new school being built have also entered the mix, but Knott’s current focus is finding a temporary remedy to the community’s present problem.

“We need a temporary solution before we either try and get a new school or renovate it [old] school,” he said.

Should repairs be necessary, Knott is hoping to get the materials into the community before the winter roads become unavailable as flying the items in would only increase the cost.

“It’s getting harder every year,” he said.