Ebb and Flow First Nation has shut down its school and declared a state of emergency after asbestos was found in the 34-year-old building.

Dust particles the school custodian found multiple times in the school's art room were sent to Winnipeg for testing in February, Ebb and Flow Chief Nelson Houle said.

Asbestos was found in the dust and identified as a hazard in a letter from Health Canada that community officials received on Monday, Houle said.

"It's a liability issue based on us as leadership and also our membership. It becomes a safety issue and we acted on that to shut it down," he said.

The school was closed on Tuesday and more than 700 students are at home until the community, which is 185 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, gets results from another round of tests, Houle said.

Congestion, light-headed

Staff have said they feel unwell in the school, where dust is still present, he said.

"They feel congestion, they feel light-headed, they feel like there's something on their tongue that they can't get out, like a taste," he said, adding some staff have also complained of headaches and diarrhea.

Declaring a state of emergency allowed Houle and his council to appoint Darcy Houle, the community's fire commissioner, to co-ordinate the emergency response, including overseeing cleaning and testing that's currently taking place.

Houle said he told Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada weeks ago that staff feared the building had asbestos problems.

INAC hired Pinchin, an environmental, engineering and health and safety consulting firm, to investigate. Pinchin staff visited the school twice, collected samples and cleaned up material in the school. Pinchin tested levels immediately after a contractor cleaned up the dust, Houle said. They recommended the school stay open.

Winnipeg Air Testing is now conducting air quality tests and cleaning up the dust. 

Parents concerned

"We're probably going to be teaching elementary school out of the arena for now," said Houle, adding there are empty houses for older students if it's not safe to return to the school.

​Several parents are concerned, and many wonder why it took so long to shut the school down, after rumours of asbestos have been rampant for several weeks.

"You kind of feel betrayed. Like, you expect to send your children to school where it's safe and where you feel safe sending your children to school," said Marley Baptiste, a community member with two children at the school.

"It's a huge concern in our community right now," she said.

"Both of my kids have been doing really good in school and now what if they fail because of all of this, or be moved to another school and have to start curriculum over again. I don't know what's going to happen."

School officials are working on a contingency plan for students' education over the coming days. 

Testing and cleanup of the school will continue into next week.

Erin Brohman