Sudbury

Classes resume for school kids evacuated from northern Ontario First Nation

The kids of the northern Ontario First Nation of Kashechewan can't go home until the flood waters recede, but this week they did go back to school.

This is the first year classes have been organized for evacuees

Kashechewan students leave the Senator Hotel in Timmins to board a school bus to their temporary classrooms at Northern College. (Erik White/CBC )

The school day for kids from Kashechewan begins with breakfast served in a hotel banquet room and waiting in the hotel lobby for the bus to pull up.

Even though the community on Ontario's remote James Bay Coast evacuates every spring, this is one of the first years that First Nation leaders have pushed to keep students in school while they're away from home.

"We've been here going on two weeks almost and that's a very long time to miss their schooling," says Sophia Lazarus, principal at Francine Wesley Secondary School in Kashechewan.

Now her school is as spread out as her community, with classes for evacuees being held in Thunder Bay, Kapsukasing, Cochrane and in Timmins, where students have moved into two empty classrooms at Northern College. 

"It's nice here. But it's not the same without the regular class schedules back home," says 17-year-old Faith Wynne, who is in Grade 11.

"So it's kind of hard to do our work."

But Wynne says it's much better than past evacuations, which she's been through every spring of her young life, when students would be left on their own to work through homework booklets known as "evacuation packages."

Kashechewan students get "evacuation packages" detailing the school work they're supposed to cover during the annual evacuation of the James Bay community. (Erik White/CBC )

"It's just when you're lost, it's hard to get back on track once you've been away for a long time and without the help from the teachers," says Wynne, who hopes to go to college to study law and politics or learn to operate heavy machinery.

"It would be hard to catch up when we get back to our school. It was really stressing."

Principal Lazarus says keeping up attendance has been a struggle for years at her school, which this year had to share spare with the First Nation's elementary school.

It was closed due to mould concerns in the fall and children from junior kindergarten to Grade 12 have been crowded into the high school this school year, with classes running from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

"It's tiring. Not only for the students, but for the teachers as well," she says.

Principal Sophia Lazarus is hopeful that Kashechewan won't fall behind in their studies during this evacuation thanks to the temporary school set up in the host cities of Timmins, Kapuskasing, Cochrane and Thunder Bay. (Erik White/CBC )

This year, Kashechewan is set to see a class of 19 high school graduates, by far the most in recent memory.

Teachers like Ken Babinchak are hoping to keep students focused on their schooling during the evacuation.

"Just to get them to come out has been difficult. Every time we see them in the halls we say 'You coming to school tomorrow?' and they say 'Yes. Maybe' and we managed to get a good crowd today and we hope to build on it. But I know it's not the first thing on their minds," he says.

"Yesterday I thought I was going to get bed sores I watched so much TV. Everyone spends a lot of time in a hotel and that gets to be pretty boring after a while."

High school science teacher Ken Babinchak has worked in Kashechewan for four years and has been evacuated with the rest of the commnuity every year. (Erik White/CBC )

The science teacher originally from Toronto has been in Kashechewan for four years, being forced out of his home with everyone else each spring with the rising flood risk on the Albany River.

"It's cold, it's windy, it's barren. There are only four seasons: winter, mud, dust and mosquito. But you learn to love the place," says Babinchak, who is set to retire at the end of this school year.

"Everyone wants to get back. That's where their lives are. That's where my teaching life is. This isn't really teaching. We can't hope to even hope to even keep up with the curriculum like we have to."

12-year-old Kashechewan evacuee Max Stephen works on his math on the first day of classes at the temporary school at Northern College. (Erik White/CBC )

In the temporary classrooms in Timmins, you hear some students talking with teachers about household finance and agriculture, while others flip through copies of Hamlet and Indian Horse.

You also hear students like 12-year-old Max Stephen talking about how many times he's been shopping at Walmart or listing the movies he's seen at the cinema in Timmins, both luxuries for a kid from an isolated fly-in community.

"I was nervous to come to school here, but it's been good," he says while filling out a math work sheet.

Sign in one of the Timmins hotels housing Kashechewan evacuees reminding kids to go to school. (Erik White/CBC )

The ice on the Albany River is finally breaking up and people in Kashechewan are hopeful they'll be returning home next week.

They're also hopeful that promises of moving the community out of the flood plain and to a new permanent location on higher ground will come true.

Zachery Wesley, 17, has been forced to leave his home every spring for his whole life and says you never get used to it. 

"It's hard getting evacuated every year. It ruins our education," he says.

"I didn't notice it as a kid, I notice it now. It's getting harder every year. It's getting frustrating."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Erik White

journalist

Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to erik.white@cbc.ca

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