Eighty-five displaced students from Lake St. Martin could be set up in a new school next week if their band leaders agree to play ball with the federal and provincial governments.
That's far from guaranteed.
The young evacuees had been studying at a former Winnipeg junior high school. It was shuttered last week when the Winnipeg Fire and Paramedic Service found code violations. The band wanted to get the problems fixed and reopen their band-run school. The feds said that wasn't going to happen.
The government said the students would be split up and placed in Winnipeg public schools. The band said they control the kids' education and the children must be kept together to preserve their culture and sense of community. The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs rang in to protest the government's decision to disperse the students, drawing parallels to Canada's residential school history.
Now the provincial government appears to have found a solution, one that depends on the band's agreement. Late Wednesday, Education Minister Nancy Allan and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Eric Robinson spoke to Indian Affairs Minister John Duncan. They proposed a "school within a school" be set up in an existing Winnipeg school, allowing the students to remain together and be educated by their own teachers.
A provincial source said Duncan "sounded excited." The band will be formally approached in the next day or so.
The students represent about half of the children evacuated from the reserve. The remainder are already in the public school system.
The kindergarten to Grade 9 students have struggled to keep up with their classes. Their lives, and that of their families, have been in turmoil since their reserve was flooded out in 2011. Most of the residents were moved into Winnipeg hotels that spring. Due to the evacuation, the students missed school in May and June 2011.
In September 2011, they still didn't have a school although provincial sources say the band signed an agreement to rent school space in St. James for a nominal fee. Lake St. Martin Chief Adrian Sinclair admits the situation was mishandled, the result of an overwhelming number of issues resulting from the evacuation and a band election.
Instead, the band rented basement space from the Salvation Army. Classes didn't begin until late fall 2011. In some cases, students were taking their lessons in hotel boardrooms.
Last August, the band rented six classrooms in the former junior high, now privately owned. They agreed to pay $440,000 for the school year. Reached early Wednesday afternoon, Sinclair said he believes repairs on the building will be completed next week. He was hopeful the school could reopen. If the band accepts the government offer, it won't matter.
In the meantime, teachers have handed out homework packages and are monitoring progress. The Grade 9s are taking their classes at the band office. Sinclair says some reserve children who are in public schools in Winnipeg have reported racism and bullying and he wants to spare this remaining group that pain.
Some saw the federal government's immediate response to the fresh crisis as high-handed.
"It has been 18 months since the community of Lake St. Martin has been waiting for a co-ordinated and proactive response from both the Government of Manitoba and the Government of Canada regarding solutions to the rebuilding of this once healthy First Nations community," AMC Grand Chief Derek Nepinak said in a letter to Duncan. "These children and their future must not be compromised while governments continue their jurisdictional wrangling over who is responsible for this disaster situation."
There has been plenty of acrimonious wrangling, much of it centred on lawsuits filed over the flooding of the reserve. The move by Indian Affairs came a day after emergency government funds for evacuees' daily living allowances were cut drastically. There has been bad blood for decades.
These kids have been traumatized. They've lost their homes, seen their families split up and are in danger of losing their culture. They deserve stability. They also deserve an education.
Political squabbling isn't serving these children. The solution is available. If this isn't resolved quickly, the children will be further pawns in a battle they didn't start.