Thunder Bay

First Nations communities 'extremely concerned' over reopening of schools

First Nations members in northern Ontario are “extremely concerned” about reopening schools during the COVID-19 pandemic, the deputy grand chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation said.

High risk of infection may lead to schools remaining closed

Nishnawbe Aski Nation Deputy Grand Chief Derek Fox said Indigenous communities are very concerned about the reopening of schools. (Derek Fox/Facebook)

First Nations members in northern Ontario are "extremely concerned" about reopening schools during the COVID-19 pandemic, the deputy grand chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation said.

"We have a high population of … people that are susceptible to getting really sick with this pandemic," Derek Fox said. "A high rate of diabetes, and cancer."

Teachers would also need to go to northern communities when schools reopen, Fox said.

"Many of the teachers come from the cities, they come from southern Ontario or through different cities," he said. "They've got to come in and out."

Police, nurses, and doctors also regularly travel in and out of the communities, which means the communities can't close down to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Meanwhile, Fox said, those communities don't have their own hospitals.

"So should an outbreak happen, you're going to see very, very worse situations than you see in Toronto," he said. "We would have to fly them out."

Lack of funding

Complicating things, Fox said, is a lack of financial support from the federal or provincial governments.

The federal government has announced funding for the provinces to support communities though the pandemic, but Fox said Indigenous communities have not yet received any of that funding.

But communities are paying high prices for shipping when they order sanitation supplies, and personal protective equipment; Fox said one community spent $40,000 on supplies, but then had to pay $9,000 in shipping.

"That just gives you a perspective of what we're dealing with in the far north," Fox said.

Students 'want their education'

And students, he said, have a desire to get back to school.

"It affects your mental health," Fox said. "You want to go back to school, you want to go back to work and see your friends."

"Bottom line is they want to get their education," Fox said. "They don't want to fall further behind. So it's a likely scenario that many of them will just go back to school even without that support."

Two Indigenous high schools — Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School in Thunder Bay, and Pelican Falls education centre near Sioux Lookout — have delayed their opening for in-class instruction because of a lack of funding.

Fox said the schools could remain closed for longer than that.

"We may decide to just keep it the way it is and stay safe and ensure that that outbreak doesn't happen," Fox said. "One of the ways may be to just keep the schools closed."