After part of school's roof collapses, Manitoba First Nation looks for alternative classroom spaces

A northern Manitoba First Nation is calling on the federal government for a safe place for their students to learn in, after part of their school's roof collapsed in March.

Part of the roof of Tataskweyak Cree Nation's only school collapsed in March

A section of the roof at the Chief Sam Cook Mahmuwee Education Centre collapsed in March, making it unsafe for students. The community's leadership is looking for spaces to accommodate students in the meantime. (Dieter Beardy)

A northern Manitoba First Nation is calling on the federal government for a safe place for their students to learn in, after part of their school's roof collapsed in March.

"If [Indigenous Services Canada] or the government cannot meet our needs in regards to giving our students a school or something temporarily to accommodate classrooms, we're going to have to announce a state of emergency," said Tataskweyak Cree Nation councillor Nathan Neckoway. 

Neckoway has been a band councillor for 10 years and has two children and a grandchild in his household who attend the school.

Shortly after the pandemic forced classes to stop in March, a part of the school's roof collapsed near the office because of snow.

"It's not a safe facility for our students to go to school," said Neckoway.

Damage is shown on sections of the roof. Education director Alfred Beardy says 'one of the rafters snapped.' He says there is no specific answer yet on when it will be repaired. (Submitted by Nathan Neckoway.)

According to Alfred Beardy, director of the Tataskweyak Education Authority, there were two fires at the school over the past 10 years, one in 2010 and another in 2012, which have contributed to the structural damage of the school.

"When the roof collapsed [in March] there were a few staff working, and it was a couple of them that were traumatized by it when it gave in," said Beardy.

The Chief Sam Cook Mahmuwee Education Centre is the only school in the community, which is located nearly 700 kilometres north of Winnipeg.

It opened in 1991 and its original capacity was 375 students. Neckoway said this year's estimates are around 900 students.

"We don't have the spaces to accommodate the number of students we have in the community. We're more or less scrambling right now for areas," said Neckoway.

Looking for alternatives

According to Neckoway, Chief Doreen Spence and council have been meeting with the local education authority and the school's leadership to figure out where the students will attend class this year.

The school has kindergarten to Grade 12 classes and is set to start the year on Sept. 21.

Currently the plan is to split the school between three locations. Those three tentative locations include the band hall, portable classrooms outside of the school and the University College of the North's campus in the community.

Dieter Beardy will be a music teacher in the community this year. He said the community's band hall, one of the places they may hold classes this year, is also used for funerals. He worries that a community funeral could disrupt schooling. (Tyson Anderson)

Dieter Beardy, who worked as a teaching assistant last year and is preparing to start this fall as school's music teacher, said one of the potential locations already faces challenges.

"We are supposed to be at the community hall and there's a lack of space [there]," said Dieter Beardy. 

"At the same time, there's funerals going on, so the community hall is being used for that."

Suzan Atkins has three daughters who go to the school. She was a teacher there from 2005 to 2019 and said the school has been in rough shape for a long time,

"I feel sorry for all of the kids," said Atkins, who left the community and is now a Sayisi Dene First Nation band councillor.

She said temporary solutions like portable classrooms can put First Nations at the "bottom of the list" for government infrastructure projects like new schools.

"How many First Nations do we have across the country? I would imagine that half of them need new schools," said Atkins.

Awaiting repairs

In an emailed statement, Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) said it has provided $54,080 for an update to Tataskweyak Cree Nation's school feasibility study "and is supporting the Chief and Council in work with their insurance company to repair damage to the roof of the Chief Sam Cook Mahmuwee Education Centre."

Neckoway said the $54,080 would go toward the purchase of classroom dividers for the band hall, and that that money would cover half of what the total cost will be. 

He said ISC agreed to fund three new portable classrooms including a kitchen, but said they need closer to 35 classrooms, without taking into consideration physical distancing.

Neckoway said previous feasibility studies have been done. One in 2018 recommended that two schools be built for the community to accommodate its growing, young population.

"We need the federal government to grant the two schools… We need that guarantee. But again, we're stuck right now with not being able to use that school because it's still unsafe," said Neckoway.

As for the roof, Neckoway estimates it will take up to 12 months to repair.

Insurance will cover a portion of the repairs that need to be fixed, according to Rick Perrin of Denver Property Restoration Services, the contractor tasked with fixing the school.

He said his company is still waiting for an engineer's report on the damage and that he hopes to have the roof repaired before the end of 2020.  

About the Author

Lenard Monkman is Anishinaabe from Lake Manitoba First Nation, Treaty 2 territory. He is the co-founder of Red Rising Magazine and has been an associate producer with the CBC's Indigenous unit since 2016. Follow him on Twitter: @Lenardmonkman1