THUNDER BAY, Ont. — An Ontario First Nations group says the federal government is failing to facilitate a safe back-to-school plan for its nearly 9,000 elementary and secondary school students.
The Nishnawbe Aski Nation says Ottawa has "ignored urgent requests" for supplies and funding to insulate NAN schools against COVID-19.
Deputy Grand Chief Derek Fox says NAN communities are in particular need of personal protective equipment and sanitization supplies.
He says the group has requested $33 million in government aid to cover those costs, but has been told its plans are too "far-reaching."
Fox says a government official told NAN there is a lack of available funds as numerous regions gear up for reopening.
But the deputy grand chief believes it's another instance of First Nations being treated as an afterthought.
"Our take is that they’re just not willing to invest in the safety of our students," Fox said in an interview.
"They’re asking us to look at other streams and avenues of finances. They’re just not willing to put up any more money to ensure the safety of our students."
Without the funding, Fox said the NAN school year will need to be pushed back. He noted the lack of reliable broadband infrastructure on northern reserves means digital learning is not a sustainable option for most students.
As of now, he said, both Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School in Thunder Bay, Ont., and Pelican Falls High School near Sioux Lookout, Ont., are considering pushing their start date back to the beginning of the second "quadmester" on Oct. 28.
And unless student safety can be guaranteed, the reopening of schools could be pushed back all the way into 2021, which Fox said would effectively cut students' school year in half.
Indigenous Services Canada released a statement saying the department was working with communities to address concerns related to the return to school, but offered no specific details.
The statement noted the federal Indigenous Community Support Fund, designed to help defray the costs of local responses to the pandemic, could be put towards school reopening efforts.
In July, the federal government reached an agreement with NAN for a mental health program, which provided the group with $2.5 million to combat a worsening addiction and suicide crisis.
Fox noted the agreement only happened after a number of NAN residents had died, and said he hopes the government doesn't make the same mistake this time.
"What we’re trying to tell them with this plan is we're trying to get ahead of it," Fox said.
"We've handed you this well thought-out plan, and we're just asking you to support it.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on August 24, 2020.
—by Jake Kivanç in Toronto
The Canadian Press