Kids still waiting for school to reopen months after wildfire forced Pukatawagan residents to flee

Pukatawagan children laugh while they play a game outside.

“I’ve just been doing stuff like going outside and that. I’ve been playing my video games as well,” said Nathaniel Sinclair, 13.

Nearly three months after a wildfire forced Pukatawagan residents to evacuate, the Mathias Colomb Cree Nation is still relying on generators for power and its school is closed.

“They need to be around other children. They learn from the teachers and the children,” said frustrated Pukatawagan resident Flora Dumas, who has 28 grandchildren.

Dumas is sending one of her grandchildren every week to stay with family in The Pas — an eight-hour train ride — so he can go to school.

“He chooses [Pukatawagan] as his home and it breaks his heart. He doesn’t want to leave his grandparents to go to The Pas to go to school, but we have no choice.”

Pukatawagan resident Flora Dumas values education and doesn’t want to have to keep sending her grandson to The Pas to go to school. He’s been going there every week by train and staying with family while the school in his home community is closed. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Remote learning in the isolated community 710 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg is a challenge and not every home has access to the internet.

Dumas said kids are being given homework packages.

There’s little for them to do during the day, she said.

WATCH | Kids still aren’t back in school after evacuation:

Months after wildfire forced a community to flee, kids still aren’t in school in Pukatawagan

3 hours ago

Duration 2:20

Nearly three months after a wildfire forced the First Nations community of Pukatawagan to evacuate, the reserve is still relying on generators for power and hundreds of children aren’t in school.

“They’re kind of just left to hang out. That’s why so many things get broken into, so much damage happens to the new buildings,” she said.

A wildfire forced the remote northwestern community of about 2,500 residents to evacuate in July and damaged the power line that feeds it.

Doris Castel, Pukatawagan’s education director, says the community is coming up with new ways to educate children while their school remains closed. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

The community’s school was under renovation when the fire hit, said Doris Castel, Pukatawagan’s education director.

The renovated Sakastew School was supposed to open in September, but construction workers couldn’t use their machinery because they sucked up more power than the generators could handle.

“We’re told to conserve energy and not to use too much power because we’re only using diesel generators.”

Manitoba Hydro confirmed it asked the community on Sept. 9 to conserve power whenever possible to not overload the generators.

“In the following days we advised leadership that construction activities could resume within the community, however, we encouraged tasks such as painting/drywall to be delayed if possible, again, because of the load,” Hydro spokesman Bruce Owen said.

After Hydro connected a third generator last week, it told the Cree Nation last week that normal power consumption could resume, Owen said.

Crews are now working to replace about 63 wood poles damaged by the wildfire and trimming hazard trees close to the line to ensure its long-term reliability.

Residents walk around Pukatawagan on Sept. 28. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Weather permitting, the goal is to re-energize the power line to the community next Saturday, he said.

Education director Castel said in her opinion, the Crown corporation should have installed the third generator sooner.

“There’s no excuse for them … not to work as hard and fast as they could to set up.”

She hopes kids will be back in school by the end of October, but there’s no guarantee the construction will be finished by then.

“The positive thing is that we are going to be going into a renovated school that has been, you know, talked about for the past 10 years, and it’s going to happen.”

Sakastew School remains under construction in Pukatawagan. (CBC)

Dumas said it’s stressful not knowing when the school will reopen. She wants to bring her grandson back home from The Pas to learn.

“Education is really important for me, for the children of our community.”