Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia schools open doors for Fort McMurray students

At least 30 children who fled the Fort McMurray wildfires with their families are now settling into classrooms in Nova Scotia to resume their education.

'It was wonderful to see them come out smiling,' says mother of two students

At least 30 children who fled the Fort McMurray wildfires with their families are now settling into classrooms in Nova Scotia. 2:20

At least 30 children who fled the Fort McMurray wildfires with their families are now settling into classrooms in Nova Scotia to resume their education.

Maryellen MacDonald's daughters Gabbi, 8, and Olivia, 6, started at H.M. MacDonald Elementary School in Antigonish on Thursday.

"It was wonderful to see them come out smiling, playing," she tells Radio-Canada. "We want them to stay engaged and keep themselves busy, so they don't have time to think about it."

Maryellen MacDonald says she's thankful for the help from neighbours and friends. (Radio-Canada)

'Sense of normalcy'

Danny MacDonald, Maryellen's husband and father of the girls, says only the basement is left of their home in the Beacon Hill neighbourhood of Fort McMurray, but they hope to rebuild. 

So far, he says it's a relief to have the girls in school.

"It gives them a sense of normalcy," he says. "That's the biggest load off my mind."

Danny MacDonald says Nova Scotia is where his roots are, but the family hopes to rebuild in Fort McMurray. (Radio-Canada)

At least four school boards in Nova Scotia have welcomed Fort McMurray students. Here are the numbers:

  • 15 — Strait Regional School Board
  • 10 — Cape Breton-Victoria School Board
  • 3 — Conseil scolaire acadien provincial (CSAP)
  • 2 — Chignecto-Central Regional School Board
  • None at Tri-County Regional School Board or South Shore Regional School Board
  • Annapolis Valley Regional School Board doesn't have numbers yet
  • Halifax Regional School Board couldn't say where newly enrolled students are coming from

'Lots of space'

The Strait Regional School Board has seen declining enrolment in recent years, as have many Nova Scotia schools, says Paul Landry, the student services manager. 

"We have lots of space to accommodate new students into the board," Landry says. "We're certainly willing to work with them in any instance, whether short term or long term."

Paul Landry is the director of programs and student services for the Strait Regional School Board. (CBC)

Support available

The student can access a school psychologist or guidance counsellor, among other services, if they need help processing the trauma, he says. 

"We try to make that as easy as possible for them," he says.

United Way also provided school supplies, says Maryellen MacDonald, who works for the charity in Alberta.

Gabbi and Olivia started attending classes Thursday at H.M. MacDonald Elementary School in Antigonish, N.S. (Radio-Canada)

'Blue skies'

Danny MacDonald says Fort McMurray became home after he moved from Antigonish two decades ago for work.

Last week, he picked up his daughters from school and packed what they could from the house.

"When I was pulling out, everything was up in flames," he says. "I couldn't believe it. It was blue skies that day."

The majority of vehicles and homes were destroyed in Beacon Hill. (Sylvain Bascaron/Radio-Canada)

'Back to your roots'

In a hotel in Edmonton, trying to sort out insurance, he decided to come back to his other home. 

"Best place to go is back to your roots," he says. "They always say you can always come home, and I'm home."

Gabbi MacDonald says she missed Fort McMurray, but she likes her new school. (Radio-Canada)

So far, one of the highlights at school for daughter Olivia was holding a baby chick, and Gabbi says she's played kickball and made friends.

"Yesterday I told them the whole story," Gabbi says. "They asked a lot questions, like was it scary and did you get to pack any toys."

Her father says he'll return to work in Alberta in a few weeks, and hopes the family will join him for the new school year. 

Six-year-old Olivia MacDonald says she likes the monkey bar at her new school. (Radio-Canada)

'Would be nice if they were staying'

That seems to be a common goal for families, says Lorne Green, chair of the Cape Breton-Victoria Regional School Board.

"It would be nice if they were staying," Green says. "This is all just going to be a temporary thing until their lives get settled back in Fort McMurray."

No school records

Green says the board hasn't been able to get school records from Alberta in the midst the chaos, but they're supporting the children as best as possible. 

"We're very, very, very glad that we can be of assistance to these children," Green says.

That help is appreciated by the MacDonald family, Danny MacDonald says: "You couldn't ask for a better spot than Nova Scotia, and the warm open hearts."

With files from Sabrina Fabian and Joan Weeks