Can't get straight answers over rural Manitoba school evacuation: Parent

A Manitoba parent says she still has no idea what actually forced her daughter’s school to evacuate all staff and students more than two weeks ago, or why 11 people who were at the school were sent to hospital, because she says her and others in her community cannot get straight answers from anyone.

“It honestly hurts my head with how vague and quiet everyone is being, because now I don’t feel I can trust what anyone is saying,” Chasity Simard said on Friday.

Simard lives on the Brokenhead Ojibway Nation (BON) a First Nations community about 75 kilometres north of Winnipeg, and her eight-year-old daughter attends Sergeant Tommy Prince School, a K-9 school in the community.

But her daughter hasn’t been to classes or even in the school building since Jan. 13, as that afternoon all staff and students were suddenly evacuated from the school around 2:45 p.m., and in a Facebook post were told the evacuation was due to “air quality” issues.

It was later learned that 11 people who were in the school that week were sent to hospital for emergency care due to what Shared Health and the Interlake-Eastern Regional Health Authority said were issues related to carbon monoxide exposure.

Now more than two weeks later, students still cannot return to school, and Simard says she feels there has been very little communication from school officials about the incident, what caused it, and when the problems first started.

According to Simard, “rumours and confusion” are now dominating conversations about the school in the community, and some are wondering when the air quality issues first began, and how long kids at the school might have been exposed to them before they were evacuated on Jan. 13.

She also claims that in early January, before the school was shut down, her and other parents in the community had been dealing with kids coming home from school with symptoms commonly related to carbon monoxide exposure or poisoning.

Winnipeg Sun reached out to Sergeant Tommy Prince School administrators on Friday, but did not receive a response before Friday’s press deadline. The school is part of the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre Inc. (MFNERC) school system, and Winnipeg Sun also reached out to MFNERC seeking comment on Friday, but did not receive a response before Friday’s press deadline.

Sergeant Tommy Prince School last updated the situation on Jan. 21, as in a post on the school’s Facebook page parents were told that air quality testing would be taking place this Tuesday and Wednesday at the school building, and that no decision on when to send kids back to school could be considered until the results of those tests come back.

“The results of the testing are expected to take up to one week before we have the results,” the school wrote in their Facebook post.

“Public Health has directed that the school building remain closed to the general public, students and staff until such time as the air quality tests are completed and results known.”

The school also posted images and video this week of air quality tests being conducted at the school.

In a statement sent to the Winnipeg Sun on Friday, BON Chief Gordon Bluesky said he was in Ottawa this week, and that he had discussed the air quality issues and other issues affecting residents in BON with federal officials, and also brought up the subject of the community needing a brand new school.

“I met with Indigenous Services officials this past week while in Ottawa to discuss our community’s immediate needs and long-term solutions,” Bluesky said.

“We stressed the importance of Brokenhead Ojibway Nation to be considered for a new school. Our school is outdated, overcrowded, and currently unsuitable for our children and staff to occupy until we find out what was making them sick.”

— Dave Baxter is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Winnipeg Sun. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.

Dave Baxter, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Sun