STEINBACH -- That fire that Education Minister Nancy Allan is breathing out isn't cigarette smoke -- she's fuming over the new smoking area at Steinbach Regional Secondary School.
"This came out of the blue. Obviously, we're disappointed. It's counterintuitive to everything we're doing as a government to getting people not to smoke," Allan said in an interview Wednesday.
Allan is sending deputy minister Gerald Farthing to Steinbach to hear the Hanover School Division's side of the story. She'll wait until some time next week to see if everyone can work it out amicably.
Then she'll act.
She doesn't have the legislative power to order Hanover to remove the sheltered smoking area, Allan acknowledged, but expects if she issues such an order anyway, Hanover would comply.
"There was an agreement in 2008 that there would be no smoking on school properties," and all divisions and the province were part of that deal, she said.
Hanover superintendent Ken Klassen said last week that the high school set up a sheltered area for smoking only after extensive consultation, and primarily because residential neighbours complained about students smoking, loitering and making a mess in front of their properties.
The area is near the parking lot, and marked by a two-sided Plexiglas fence.
It's believed to be the first school in Manitoba to re-establish a designated smoking area.
One 16-year-old student outside the Steinbach high school said the smoking shelter was created largely to keep unruly students in line. Kids leaving the property to smoke were causing more trouble to neighbours than just leaving butts behind.
"A lot of those guys are stupid, and they fight," he said.
Now, smoking in the designated area is supervised by staff.
"There's always a teacher out there when we're having a cigarette."
The student, a smoker, didn't give his name as he said the school advised kids not to speak to reporters.
Mark Loewen lives across from the school and said he has complained numerous times to the school and the RCMP about students smoking cigarettes and drugs, and roughhousing around and on his property in what at points was a daily occurrence. Before he locked his garage and installed an alarm system, he would find remnants of both tobacco and marijuana cigarettes inside and has seen students vandalizing his fence.
"I have chased a number of kids away and called the RCMP," he said. "I've got kids, too, and they don't need to see people smoking. I want my kids to play outside here and not see this."
Since the designated smoking area was created, Loewen has seen fewer students loitering around his house, but he said the real problem hasn't been solved, and he expects to see lots more students hanging around come warmer weather.
Still, if the shelter is taken down, he fears it will be even worse.
"I think if they take that down, it's going to go back to them doing it on the sidewalks."
The irony that this is National Non-Smoking Week was not lost on Allan.
Manitoba has reduced smoking among young people aged 15 to 19 to 18 per cent from 29 per cent over the last decade, still one of the highest rates in Canada.
"We're concerned about young people smoking -- smoking cessation is important to us as a government," Allan said. "We take this seriously.
Allan said the province has a good working relationship with Hanover.
"They're going to go out and visit the school division to get a handle on why this occurred. Once we look at this, we will determine how to proceed," Allan said.
Klassen could not be reached Wednesday.
Organizations such as the Manitoba Lung Association and CancerCare Manitoba have strongly criticized Hanover's decision.
-- with files from Sandy Klowak