Garden Hill First Nation high school ‘is not healthy,’ chief says after mould forces closure

The high school in Garden Hill First Nation, a remote fly-in community in northeastern Manitoba, has been closed for weeks due to widespread mould, and it’s unclear when it could reopen, officials say.

“We need to address this as soon as possible,” Garden Hill Chief Charles Knott said at a news conference Wednesday.

At least one student was confirmed to be affected by the mould which, along with rust that is affecting the main beams, is spread throughout the building, Knott said.

“They say he’s OK when he goes home,” he said. “Then, once he’s in the building, he starts to have this breathing problem.”

The high school, which has been closed since Oct. 9, has around 500 students in grades 6 to 12.

Knott spoke to reporters during a news conference in Winnipeg Wednesday, where he and other chiefs of Island Lakes region First Nations called on the provincial and federal governments to ensure equal access to health care and social services, as mental health and addictions issues rise in their communities.

Knott said there’s a lack of suitable other space in Garden Hill for the high school classes, and there’s no remote learning taking place in the community right now due to a lack of internet access.

“They’re working on it,” he said.

Knott said one plan is to bring in laptops to the community, but internet access in Garden Hill — which is often slow for those who have it at all — will likely be a significant roadblock.

Garden Hill First Nation’s high school, shown in a 2020 file photo, has about 500 students. They haven’t been able to attend the school for weeks due to mould in the building, Garden Hill’s chief said Wednesday. (Jillian Taylor/CBC)

Garden Hill also has an elementary school with 700 students in nursery to Grade 5. However, there wouldn’t be enough room there for both student bodies combined, said Knott.

“The community’s growing. [There’s] a lot of kids starting school,” he said. “[But] we have no buildings where they can temporarily teach these high school students.”

‘We need our students to go back to school’

Knott also said he was frustrated with the lack of government response to the issue.

“The government should have been on top of these things. Our school is not healthy,” said the chief.

Knott said he and community members have reached out to the regional director general of Indigenous Services Canada to ask for help with the school.

“We need our students to go back to school,” Knott said.

An Indigenous Services spokesperson confirmed that the department has been in contact with Garden Hill, and that they’re evaluating next steps.

Department officials are working with the community to find out the cause of the mould and make sure more students and staff have not been exposed, the spokesperson said.

A meeting will take place between federal department officials and community leaders to figure out next steps and make sure that students can study remotely, according to the Indigenous Services spokesperson.

The school closure marks another setback for students in Garden Hill First Nation following challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and remote learning.

In May 2021, educators made the decision to have students repeat the 2020-21 school year as not enough of the curriculum was covered that year.

“[Students] have been missing school for the past three years, two years,” said Knott at the conference. “When the pandemic hit, kids weren’t in school, and now this.”

At the Island Lakes Anishinew Okimawin region conference, Knott said the community is also dealing with other issues related to young people in the community.

“Our youth need help in our communities.… They’re suffering. There’s a lot of drugs and alcohol in our communities,” he said.

“It wasn’t like that a couple of years ago.”