Thunder Bay

Mouldy homes drive teachers from Ontario First Nation

Teachers in Pikangikum First Nation say their housing is unlivable and are leaving the community. Their departure puts the school year at risk for more than 700 students.

Students in Pikangikum First Nation face loss of school year

Students on Pikangikum First Nation have been attending classes in portables since their school burned down in 2007.

Teachers in a northwestern Ontario aboriginal reserve say their housing is unlivable and are leaving the community. Their departure puts the school year at risk for more than 700 students.

Most of the teachers in Pikangikum First Nation are from outside the community. They stay in First Nation-owned houses, called "teacherages."

About a month ago, a doctor visiting the community was treating a teacher for persistent pulmonary concerns and asked that the teachers' accommodations to be tested for mould. According to principal Joanne Donnelly, the tests were "not good." Mould was discovered in seven of the homes.

By Tuesday, 25 of the school's 30 teachers had left, concerned about the long-term effects of living in mouldy houses, Donnelly said.

"We did have one person who was very sick, then another fella who was in with the same sort of symptoms. Then we had another teacher who had gone through this last year," she said. "It was like, you know, better safe than sorry — we gotta get outta here until they can eliminate this."

Nowhere to go

The teachers have no other place to live while the mould is cleaned up. Aside from the teacherages, few homes in Pikangikum have indoor plumbing.

"There is housing that is much worse than this," Donnelly said. "That's the irony of all this. Housing is a huge issue here — it has been for a long time."

She said it's not clear whether the teachers' houses can be cleaned up — the homes are old and might be beyond repair. while First Nation is only provided a limited amount of money for maintenance each year, Donnelly said, she is optimistic trailers may be brought in on a winter ice road to accommodate the teachers.

However, another long-time problem in Pikangikum is the school itself. Students have been attending classes in portables since the school burned down in 2007.

Saving the school year

Terry Waboose, deputy grand chief with the Nishnawbe Aski Nation — which includes Pikangikum — said the government needs to act immediately to provide housing for the teachers.

"For years the community has asked the Government of Canada to repair or replace these teacherages," he said in a news release. "And it is a tragedy that these students are now being denied their basic human and legal right to education because the government can't provide teachers safe and healthy living conditions."

Donnelly added the mould in the teachers’ homes needs to be cleared up by the end of January for the school year to be saved. "I'm kinda sad we're in this situation because … it couldn't have happened at a worse time — two weeks away from final exams."

Currently the teachers who remain in Pikangikum First Nation are running junior and senior kindergarten classes as well as Grades 2, 4 and 5.

A total of 732 students attend the school. Roughly a dozen students are on track to graduate if classes can be resumed by the end of January.