The chief of Listuguj First Nation in Quebec says he is hopeful students from his community will be welcomed when they return to high school in neighbouring Campbellton after COVID-19 split them apart.
Residents of the intertwined communities can now travel freely back and forth across the Van Horne Bridge as part of a bubble New Brunswick shares with two Quebec regions.
But tensions mounted in recent months after New Brunswick closed its borders in March, cutting the communities off from one another.
That's been a concern for Listuguj First Nation Chief Darcy Gray, especially now that students from his community are preparing to return to Sugarloaf Senior High School in Campbellton.
The chief has is afraid hurtful comments on social media directed at Mi'kmaq and Quebec residents could linger.
"I'm just fearful maybe a few comments or a few inappropriate remarks could really set back a lot of work that's been done over the years," he said.
About 110 students travel from Listuguj First Nation to attend high school in Campbellton. That's about a third of the student population.
Gray worked at the school as a guidance counsellor for eight years. Before the pandemic, good progress was made in making the school environment more welcoming to Listuguj students, including more incorporation of Mi'kmaq culture into day-to-day learning.
Mark Donovan, the superintendent for the Anglophone North School District, said in a statement there will be no tolerance for negative and racist comments once classes resume.
"Listuguj and Campbellton are a community divided by a river — that's simply geography," he said. "What we will not allow to divide our school community is fear or intolerance."
Gray said he is unsure how much work it will take to repair the tension from the border closure under COVID-19. But he is hopeful students will be ready to work toward healing from the separation.
"I think they'll bounce back and keep a more open mind than we do as adults," he said.
Leaders from the community have sought help from New Brunswick officials to collaborate on the return to school. Now the chief hopes to hear from students and parents about their specific concerns.
Border closure hurt both communities
Listuguj Education, Training and Employment is planning to survey families to see how they feel about the return to school.
The two communities had been advocating for a bubble expansion for weeks until it opened on Aug. 1. The months-long border closure resulted in businesses suffering, limited access to services, and families separated.
Gray said the restrictions have been hard for people on both sides of the river.
"There's a bridge that connects us, not divides us," he said. "And I think that's what we've got to get back to."