Sophia Lazarus hasn’t been home in nearly a month.
Instead, the principal of Francine J. Wesley Secondary, in Kashechewan, near James Bay, has been staying at a hotel in Timmins. That’s because she’s one of the 1,800 residents from the remote northern Ontario community who’ve been displaced as a result of flooding. Such emergencies are a regular occurrence, as the spring thaw sends water from the Albany River gushing into the low-lying land. This year, people have evacuated south to Thunder Bay, Hearst, Kapuskasing, Timmins, and Cochrane. (About 20 people have stayed behind to monitor security and flood mitigation.)
Lazarus, who’s been forced to evacuate several times in the past, says that “people are tired and frustrated.” A spokesperson for Indigenous Services Canada told TVO.org via email that “we have had a total of 17 evacuations between Spring 1976 and Spring of 2019 in response to major flooding (1976, 1985, 2006) and minor flooding (1989, 1997, 2014); the remainder were precautionary due to the risk of flooding.”
One of the aspects of life that’s seriously disrupted during evacuations is education. “It's been an ongoing issue where our students are falling behind every year,” Lazarus says. In the past, students from grades 7 to 12 were given education packages to help them meet the learning goals and criteria of the curriculum, and there were some classes, but students had to do the bulk of the work on their own. This year, high-schoolers are in classroom settings with Kashechewan teachers by their side: students staying in Timmins, for example, are using class space at Northern College. It’s all part of a greater community emphasis on maintaining the continuity of schooling during these disruptions.
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“There was a meeting before the evacuation, and one of the things that was discussed was a push for education from the chief and council,” says Lazarus.
James Wesley, the director of education for Kashechewan’s high school and elementary schools, says that, in the past, students would miss multiple months of school during spring evacuations. Last summer, the First Nation hired an educational consultant to assess the elementary school. She discovered that some students were two to three grades behind the Ontario standards. “The evacuations affect our students, our young ones, and it shows,” Wesley says, adding, “It also affects the teachers, the frustration that they can’t teach the full year.”
And evacuations aren’t the only issue that Kashechewan students face: this year, St. Andrew’s elementary school, which consists solely of portables, was deemed too unsafe to use, because of mouldy classrooms, jammed doors, electrical problems, faulty fire alarms, and more. The community declared a state of emergency last August and moved 400 elementary students to the high school. The younger students go to school for four hours in the morning, and the 212 older students from 1 p.m. until 7:10 p.m.
Thirteen-year-old Arthur Koosees, who’s in Grade 8, spoke at a Parliament Hill rally in September about the conditions at the elementary school; he returned there last month to discuss that fact that he and his peers just want the flooding to stop. “This year has been quite an experience, going to school in the afternoon. You get used to it, but it has been weird,” says Koosees, who is staying in Kapuskasing. This isn’t the first time he’s done so. From 2014 to 2017, he lived there with his family while houses in his First Nation were being rebuilt. (The young Cree performer has rapped about his First Nation’s struggles and, later this year, intends to release a single about the evacuations.)
Interim and long-term relief could be on the way for the community and its students. In 2018, the federal government earmarked $15 million for a modular elementary school — Chief Leo Friday expects that the pre-manufactured portable building will be ready by the time classes start in September. And, on May 9, Friday signed a framework agreement with the federal and provincial governments to relocate the First Nation: the community’s hope is that it will be moved about 30 kilometres southwest, to a less flood-prone area, within eight to 10 years. (A government-funded study from 2018 found that the site would be able to support a new community, and Ottawa and Kashechewan are now working on pre-engineering survey design and identifying options for an access road.)
Ontario Regional Chief RoseAnne Archibald, who attended the signing in Toronto, called the agreement significant. “There is an actual document that shows all the steps that are going to happen — whereas, in the past, agreements have been signed, but there was never a clear plan."
Friday, though, isn’t celebrating just yet. Previous promises to relocate have fallen through. “I have mixed emotions,” he says. “It is scary, and I’m afraid of what is going to happen in the future. But, as far my leadership, I’m going to make sure this is going to pull through.”
Relocation, Wesley says, “would mean everything to me because finally our students will have a good educational system that won’t be disrupted.”