Most First Nations elementary schools to stay closed as Quebec moves to reopen

As Quebec plans to reopen elementary schools in the coming weeks, most First Nations-run schools in the province say they’re staying closed for the remainder of the school year.

'Reviving Quebec’s economy should not come at the expense of our community’s health,' says Mohawk longhouse

Students at Kanesatake enjoy lacrosse last year with exchange students from N.W.T. Students at Kanestake's Rotiwennakehte Elementary School and Ratihén:te High School will not be returning to class until at least the fall due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Liza McLaughlin)

As Quebec plans to reopen elementary schools in the coming weeks, most First Nations-run schools in the province say they're staying closed for the remainder of the school year.

Northwest of Montreal, Kanesatake's Emergency Response Unit voted unanimously this week to keep the Rotiwennakehte Elementary School and Ratihén:te High school closed.

"The emergency response unit is mandated to oversee the health and welfare of the community through the pandemic. For the safety of the kids, we decided to keep the schools closed until we know more about how we're going to adapt to this virus," said Grand Chief Serge Otsi Simon.

"The virus is still increasing in Quebec, and the effects on young people are still not well-known."

Premier François Legault announced Monday that elementary schools in most regions of Quebec will reopen May 11, while those in the greater Montreal region will open May 19 as a part of a gradual plan to reopen the province.

Simon said it's a bad idea. The community plans to keep its checkpoints that have turned away over 4,000 vehicles in a span of a week and a half. He said pre-existing health conditions like diabetes among community members has been a motivating factor to keep checkpoints up, and businesses and schools closed.

Decisions to keep schools closed were also made by the Cree School Board, and by community leaders in Mashteuiatsh, Uashat mak Mani-utenam, Listuguj, and Kahnawake.

The First Nations Education Council represents 22 communities in Quebec that run 15 day care centres, 13 elementary schools and 11 high schools. Denis Gros-Louis, director general of the council, said only two communities have decided to reopen come May 11.

"Our primary observations were that many communities have a reality that is different from the province, so we decided to stray away from their decision and assist each community to determine whether they're going to reopen or not," he said.

"In a lot of communities, our teachers or our students are living with their grandparents. Therefore going back to school and coming back home could represent a higher risk for our elders who are the knowledge keepers, the language keepers in a lot of communities. It would increase the risk of vulnerability for our elders who are so important for our nations and communities."

Caring for the collective

Robin Delaronde, the director of education in Kahnawake, said in a Facebook live video to the community this week that she wants to make sure its schools reopen with proper planning to ensure the safety of employees, students, and their families. 

"We really want to make sure we have the proper measures in place and not to be rushed and make decisions that are not in the best interests for the people who will be returning to our schools," she said.

The Kahnawake Education Centre is keeping its schools closed until the fall. (Jessica Deer/CBC)

In addition to overseeing local schools, the centre said it currently has 87 students enrolled in elementary schools outside of Kahnawake. While Delaronde said staff will be calling those parents to assess their decisions for the task force to review, the Mohawk Nation longhouse is encouraging them not to send their children to school. A letter signed by three clan chiefs said it's an unnecessary risk. 

"Reviving Quebec's economy should not come at the expense of our community's health. It puts our children at risk and by extension, our community," the letter signed by Kahnawí:io Dione, Skatsénhati Lazare, and Kanen'tó:kon Hemlock stated.

"Our traditional teachings place so much value on our individual responsibility to care for the welfare of the collective. This philosophy has never been so relevant."

The Kativik School Board in Nunavik, the Inuit region of Quebec, decided in March not to reopen schools until the start of the next school year.


Ka’nhehsí:io Deer is a Kanien’kehá:ka journalist from Kahnawà:ke, south of Montreal. She is currently a reporter with CBC Indigenous covering communities across Quebec.