Remote First Nations schools await PPE, in-class safety measures promised by Ontario government

WATCH: Ontario First Nations schools lack support to reopen, no HEPA filters, masks, and rapid tests

There will be no back-to-in-class learning for the majority of remote First Nations students across Ontario due to limited access to, N95 masks, HEPA filters and rapid antigen tests, all items promised by the Ford government to the province’s other schools.

Students in the province resumed classes after the holidays via online learning in an effort to curb surging COVID-19 cases. With new safety measures in place, Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced students would return to in-class learning on Jan. 17.

“Does that mean our First Nations schools as well? Within the remote north of this province? Because to tell you the truth we haven’t seen anything yet. It’s just looking for that equitable access to many of those resources that every other school in the province has access to,” explains Bobby Narcisse, the Deputy Grand Chief who represents the Nishnawbe Aski Nation.

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Nishnawbe Aski Nation is made up of 49 First Nations, 34 of which are remote northern communities. The Deputy Grand Chief says Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority placed an order with the provincial government earlier this month.

“We were told like everyone else it would take like three days, so it’s been thirteen days, and nothing has really arrived yet,” added Narcisse.

Most of the First Nation schools in that area have opted to close past the return-to-class dates set out by the provincial government because of the lack of supplies. Many communities are choosing to keep students’ at home to protect themselves, knowledge keepers and elders.

Not to mention, online learning isn’t even an option in some areas, because of limited internet access.

“We’re not even halfway to reaching where we want to be today, you know, because we lost so much instructional time, a lot of our students are behind,” explains Charles Brown, director of education for the Windigo First Nations Council.  The council serves the remote northern communities of Bearskin Lake, Sachigo Lake, North Caribou Lake, Cat Lake, Koocheching, Whitewater Lake First Nations and Slate Falls Nation.

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Brown says the main priority for First Nation communities is safety, as communities have limited access to medical supplies and if someone is sick and needs hospital attention, in many communities they would need to be flown out to the nearest hospital, dependent on weather conditions.

“With a background in education, I hope we’re going to regroup from this and start building on academics again that our students need,” adds Brown.

Earlier this month, Bearskin Lake a community located 600 kilometers north of Thunder Bay, grappled with a COVID-19 outbreak that infected more than half of its population which resulted in military intervention.

“We’re in a crisis right now, we’re trying to get kids back at school because it’s safe but really how many communities have HEPA filters right now for school? None. And so it shows us the discrimination that we have in our system. It goes back to the Indian Act,” explains Dr. Anna Banerji, a pediatrician, infectious tropical disease specialist and founder of the Indigenous Health Conference and the North American Refugee Health Conference.

Banerji says northern communities are in a “crisis” and that all children need access to upgraded masks and personal protection equipment.

“COVID exposes certain vulnerabilities in these communities and so going back to schools the children should have at least what children have in the south.

“That should be a basic minimum,” explains Banerji.

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Her words were echoed by a representative with Bimaadzwin, an Indigenous-led company providing support to “advance nations” through “nation-building.”

Allison Deer, senior projects advisor with Bimaadzwin, points to issues within First Nations schools, their structure and supplies, as well as issues as housing in terms of access to clean water, heating, ventilation, and supplies to PPE, with the new standard for N95 masks and rapid antigen test kits.

“The underlying problem is for governments to address the inequities and the social determinants of health and the uneven access to health care and the necessities of community health and well-being for Indigenous peoples in Canada.”

Meanwhile, the ministry of education maintains that all publicly funded schools have access to quality PPE and rapid tests. In addition to “extended support to federally-run First Nation schools.”

“First Nation students and families will continue to receive access to PCR testing and continue to have access to rapid tests, in addition, the Government of Ontario has extended free PPE to their schools,” said Caitlin Clark, spokesperson for Stephen Lecce.

With First Nation schools being funded by the federal government, Global News asked Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu’s office whether Ottawa is offering assistance. No one was able to provide any details by publishing deadline.

© 2022 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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