Fire destroys reserve's only school, sparks support movement

The only school on the remote Pikangikum First Nation reserve burned down last month and few people outside the community noticed. As the education authority struggles to get a school ready for the fall, friends and teachers are launching campaigns to get help, and attention, for the troubled community.

The only school on the remote Pikangikum First Nation reserve burned down last month and few people outside the community noticed. As the education authority struggles to get a school ready for the fall, friends and teachers are launching campaigns to get help, and attention, for the troubled community.

While the Ojibwa community in Northern Ontario, about 300 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, got little attention for the school fire, it has made national headlines — for living conditions that have been compared to those in the Third World.

"A lot of the buildings are very outdated, very overcrowded. You have families living all together in one home, no indoor plumbing, problems with the water and old pipes," said Ronda Potts, who taught there for two years. "I would say it's Third World conditions in a lot of regions."

Of the 430 homes for the reserve's 2,300 people, many are dilapidated and 90 per cent don't have running water or indoor toilets. The town's electrical supply, a diesel generator, is so overtaxed that residents were told not to put up Christmas lights this season.

School helpedcommunity's problems

The community has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, but since 1999 the rate has gone down, in part due to the reserve's only school, the principal says.

In a January interview with the Canadian Press, the principal of Eenchokay Birchstick School, Mick Staruck said that six kids in his Grade 7 class took their own lives in 1999. Over the last two years, only two children in the school have committed suicide.

Staruck credited the school with the declining suicide rate. He said a new wave of dedicated teachers, along with new after-school programs and sports, have worked to keep kids engaged, off the streets, and alive. The school also went without new supplies in order to hire its first-ever guidance counsellor, as well as several teaching assistants.

The junior-kindergarten to Grade 12 school was described as brightly lit and lively, with cutting edge computers.

It had addedseven new portable classrooms to help with the overcrowding. As fewer students dropped out, 750 students were registered in a school designed for 350.

These improvements were paired with an April funding announcement from the federal government, dedicating $40 million to bettering quality of life in the community. The money was allotted to help connect houses to the electricity grid, improve water and sewage services, build up to 40 new homes and build a new, larger school in 2010.

Then, on June 8, the school burned down. The cause is still being investigated, but it has been described as an "incident of mishap."

With one week left of the school year, students worried about finishing their grade, having a place to return to in the fall and the loss of the building that allowed them to learn, play and interact.

"The role of the school is actually very, very important," Potts told "It was like the main hub of community activity."

The school building was used for conferences, band meetings, feasts, concerts, funerals, sports and other events.

Portables for the fall

"The students, they were shocked to see their school burn down, they were upset," said Brad Peters, chairman of the Pikangikum Education Authority.

Peters said that the education authority is working to have a place for students to attend in the fall, building from the five portables that were not damaged in the fire.

"We're just crossing our fingers that everything will be done by September," he said, adding that high school begins Aug. 28.

Last week, construction started on a few more portables in the hopes of meeting the August deadline. The new school, composed entirely of these portable classrooms, will sit on the reserve's only baseball field.

Because the federal money isn't due until 2010, students could spend up tothree years in portables.

In addition to the school, the education authority suffered other losses in the fire — from pencils and files to computers and calculators — and needs to build up a store of school supplies by September.

Campaigns for attention and aid

Several initiatives have been launched to help the remote community get a school up and running in time for fall.

One such campaign is Letters of Love, with the goal of sending more than 1,000 letters offering words of encouragement and support for the community. The campaign, launched by Potts and University of Toronto student Stephanie Ma, started a week ago.

"The people really need to be encouraged, they need to feel like the rest of Canada knows they're there," Potts said. "They have great hearts."

The letters will be translated into Ojibwa and read on the local radio station, Potts said. "Can you imagine the blessing that will be." The Pikangikum community has one of the highest retention rates for the Ojibwa language in the world.

Potts met Letters of Love co-founder Ma on June 29, on the First Nations National Day of Action. Ma says she was shocked that the media hadn't paid more attention to the community's loss.

"The reason why I started the campaign is because I realized, 'Why don't I know about it?'" she said. "I was just outraged that nobody knew about it."

"The foundation of the campaign is to get the school built up faster," added Ma. "I would think if it happened in any other community perhaps the school would have been built up quicker, and the students wouldn't be housed in portables."

In addition to sending out e-mailsasking people to write letters, Ma has started a group on Facebook called "from one child to the next, the future depends on the present", which now has almost 200 members.

That group is also directing interested parties to another group on the social networking site, Resources for Eenchokay Birchstick School, which is asking for donations of school supplies and resources.

Thegroup, started on behalf of a high school math teacher at the school, says, "This is a group created in the hopes of helping our school."

The items flagged by the high school teacher range from graph paper and calculators, chalkboards and chalk and globes.