An intergovernmental dispute has kept more than 100 high school students from a Quebec Indigenous community out of the classroom at their New Brunswick high school for over a month.
The chief of their First Nation says for some of the students, the experience has been a lesson in discrimination.
"For some of them, it's the first time realizing that they're treated differently, and as much as you'd hope that's not part of the decision-making or perspective, it's hard for them not to internalize that," Listuguj Chief Darcy Gray said in an interview this week.
He added that the students' academic performance, and their feeling of belonging, "has really taken a hit."
For five weeks, students from Listuguj have been learning online after the community was informed Sugarloaf Senior High School in Campbellton, N.B. -- about a 10-minute drive away -- was closed to them over fears of COVID-19 spread.
Gray said there’s no timetable for their return to class, and students have been watching classes online while being assisted in person by Sugarloaf staff members, some of whom live in Listuguj.
Gray said the situation has been hard on the students, but the community tries to incorporate some normalcy and routine to their days.
New Brunswick Education Minister Dominic Cardy said the dispute stems from the Quebec’s refusal to establish a checkpoint that would allow Listuguj and the neighbouring town of Pointe-a-la-Croix, Que., to be included in the Atlantic bubble.
Cardy said the province needs assurance that COVID-19 is not being carried into Listuguj and Pointe-a-la-Croix from other parts of Quebec. He cited concerns of asymptomatic spread.
"With every single person you allow into an area without the checks on COVID infection, every person you allow in increases the risk," he said in an interview.
Cardy added that the wording of New Brunswick's emergency health order would allow the Listuguj students to come back. "We're ready to do it again starting tomorrow morning if the (Quebec) government is willing to put in the single security checkpoint that was already there," Cardy said.
"All they have to do is go back to doing what they were doing before and this problem disappears."
A checkpoint had been in place, but it was removed in early October after nearby Quebec communities complained that they had lost access to Pointe-a-la-Croix.
Mathieu Lapointe, a spokesman for the regional municipality of Avignon, says it wasn't acceptable that people residing in neighbouring towns could no longer obtain services in Pointe-a-la-Croix as a condition of that town being included in the Atlantic bubble.
"I think when they agreed to the checkpoint, they didn't realize people could no longer go to Pointe-a-la-Croix, or vice versa," Lapointe said.
"As for why they closed off to the students in Listuguj, I find the reasoning hard to follow."
Lapointe noted that 120 people residing in Pointe-a-la-Croix work at the hospital in Campbellton, and they are allowed across the border. Residents from the Quebec side of the border are permitted to cross into New Brunswick for essential reasons twice a week, subject to approval, and essential workers are also allowed to cross.
The Quebec government says it continues to discuss the issue with New Brunswick. "Despite our best efforts, New Brunswick continues to close its borders to students from Listuguj," said a statement from Premier Francois Legault's office.
Gray said the COVID-19 situation in his community has not worsened since the beginning of the school year, and it has seen just two cases.
He praised the resiliency of students, but expressed fear about the message given them by the fact they are the only students unable to attend class.
"I know the kids can bounce back, but they are also learning some things from this experience. They're learning about discrimination, they're learning about . . . systemic racism. Those are a little harder to undo and bounce back from," Gray said.
"That lingers and sticks for a while."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 20, 2020.
Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press