Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Lake St. Martin's school shut

Yet another woe for First Nation hit by flooding and its aftermath

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First, they lost their homes. Then, an evacuation to Winnipeg hotels broke up their community. Now, the children of Lake St. Martin are to be split up after their school was suddenly shut on Friday.

The latest blow to the flooded-out Interlake Ojibwa First Nation could be the death knell for the beleaguered community of about 700.

On Friday, Winnipeg fire officials shuttered the St. James building rented for this school year, after a two-day inspection turned up fire-code violations, a city spokeswoman confirmed by email.

"The Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service had no other choice but to effect a closure of the facility until corrections were made," she said.

The fire department said a boiler needed to be repaired and a fire-alarm panel had been installed without a permit.

All this came a day after emergency government funds for daily living allowances were cut drastically.

Now, the federal government has served notice it's taking over education from Lake St. Martin.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan formally notified Manitoba Education Minister Nancy Allan of the fire-code problem on Friday, a provincial spokesman confirmed.

"We are looking into the matter and hope it can be resolved as quickly as possible to ensure students can attend classes in a safe environment. To that end, we will make space available in the provincial school system as necessary," a provincial spokesman said.

Ottawa intends to divide the community's estimated 85 school-age children from K-Grade 9 among the city's schools and disband the community's school in Winnipeg for good.

The band is protesting the decision and asking the aid of city, federal and provincial levels of government to find a way to keep the students together, get the repairs done and reopen the school by Monday.

"The children of Lake St. Martin have already lost their home, access to... social and cultural institutions on the reserve and daily contact with extended family and neighbours," Chief Adrian Sinclair said in a letter Friday that protests the school closure and dispersal of the students.

"Our ability to educate our children together in the First Nation's school was the last remaining thread holding our community together," the chief's letter stated.

The band's had problems getting a school of its own ever since Lake St. Martin was evacuated.

Students missed the end of the school year due to the flooding in the spring of 2011 and, by September, they still didn't have a school to go to in Winnipeg.

Finally, the Salvation Army rented space for classrooms at 324 Logan Ave. for the balance of the year but it was late in the fall by the time classes settled down for the winter.

In August, the band rented the former Deer Lodge Junior High School, once owned by the St. James-Assiniboia School Division and later used by the province for vocational and education classes. A private owner who acquired the property rented the band six classrooms for the school year, at a cost of $440,000.

Now the building is shut and arrangements to keep the school open while repairs are done isn't an option.

Ottawa will cover tuition costs for kids whose parents enroll them into Winnipeg schools, the letter stated.

The community's relations with federal and provincial officials have been marked by acrimony for years, largely due to lawsuits related to overland flooding.

Widespread flooding destroyed the Interlake reserve in 2011 and since then, the First Nation, province and federal government have failed to resolve its relocation.

alexandra.paul@freepress.mb.ca @eascpaul

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 6, 2012 A3

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