After 14 years of holding classes in drafty portables, the Attawapiskat First Nation is celebrating the opening of Kattawapiskak Elementary School

In 2000 the reserve’s elementary school was closed due to toxic contamination after a fuel pipe under the building ruptured and spilled diesel fuel. The contamination from that spill is believed to date back to 1979.

The history of the troubled reserve includes sewage flooding and a severe lack of infrastructure which in the winter of 2011 resulted in the issuing of states of emergency by Chief Teresa Spence.

Children and community leaders rallied for years to have the new school built and after about 10 years the Harper government eventually agreed to the project.

"If you look at the contamination of the school grounds that have existed, it's been pretty much 30 years since the children have been educated in a safe environment, so it's going to be an enormous milestone for Attawapiskat and the James Bay region,” said Timmins-James Bay MP Charlie Angus.

In 2012, Attawapiskat and the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs announced a contract to build the new 5,808-square-metre school at a cost of about $31 million.

The school will accommodate 540 students from Kindergarten to Grade 8, according to the AANDC government website. 

“There is a great sense of excitement within the community,” said Wayne Turner, Attawapiskat’s executive director. “This has been a project that's been a decade-long in the making."

Attawapiskat school plan

A rendering of the new school in Attawapiskat (www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca)

Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, said the decision by the Harper government was a “turning point” in the ongoing First Nation education debate.

"I just hope that the federal government finds its way to do this for every First Nations child," Blackstock said.

Classes are expected to start at the new school in the coming days. The Attawapiskat First Nation plans to hold official opening celebrations in mid-September.

The community held a referendum Wednesday to choose a name for the school.