Parents in Barriere Lake, Que., face wrenching choice because of mould in local school

·7 min read
Many children in Barriere Lake are out of school and spending their time outside. (Delphine Jung/Radio-Canada - image credit)
Many children in Barriere Lake are out of school and spending their time outside. (Delphine Jung/Radio-Canada - image credit)

Parents in Barriere Lake, Que.,a small Algonquin community about 415 kilometres northwest of Montreal, face a difficult dilemma: whether to send their children to school for an education, or keep them at home for their health.

Their local school is contaminated by mould.

Employees from the band council have dug a hole into the earth near one of the school's doors in order to crawl underneath and examine the foundations.

Larry Deschenes, the community's director of public works, is the one who descends into the hole.

"They're not the ones who should be going in," he said, pointing to the younger employees. "This is up to me."

The men can be seen working with shovels and wheelbarrows at the site, wearing protective masks as they try to remove the mould that has spread throughout the building.

Delphine Jung/Radio-Canada
Delphine Jung/Radio-Canada

Deschenes has some pictures that show the extent of the damages. It's difficult to distinguish the mould from the sand, but the smell at the site leaves no doubt.

"A few days ago, it was even worse," he said.

The community of about 800 is familiar with the problem. Mould appears every year after the snow melts.

But few residents dare to talk openly about the issue, for fear of reprisals from the band council.

Delphine Jung/Radio-Canada
Delphine Jung/Radio-Canada

In this small and very divided community, bringing up issues can cost you a lot, even your job, according to some people.

"Even 20 years ago we had mould [inside the school], and we have always been worried about our children's health," said Keyejee Papatie, who worked at the school before.

But "the [band] council doesn't listen," Papatie said.

Former chief Casey Ratt echoes Papatie's concerns. His children attend the school and he says he has smelled the mould.

Ratt wants the current chief, Tony Wawatie, to advocate for the community and contact the federal government about the issue.

"The chief must bring up our grievances," he said.

Delphine Jung/Radio-Canada
Delphine Jung/Radio-Canada

Radio-Canada's Espaces autochtones was able to gather testimony from about 10 members of the community, who all told the same story.

They said those who spend time inside the school start coughing after a few days. Their eyes are red and they suffer from recurrent migraines.

Parents are complaining about the situation on social media and are demanding more transparent communication from Chief Wawatie and from the school's education director, who lives some 700 kilometres away.

Some residents say the chief is not present enough in the community and is not answering their questions.

Delphine Jung/Radio-Canada
Delphine Jung/Radio-Canada

Deserted school

Inside the school, the hallways are quiet and the classrooms are nearly empty. One teacher is taking care of two children. There are normally about 80 to 85 children at the school, but now only about 15 students still attend.

Most parents have decided to stop sending their children to school these past few weeks to avoid them breathing the unhealthy air.

The band council has ordered the school closed a number of times. Some teachers have decided to teach in other buildings, like the one used by the local daycare.

Delphine Jung/Radio-Canada
Delphine Jung/Radio-Canada

These repeated closures worry one of the school and daycare employees, whose name CBC/Radio-Canada has agreed to keep anonymous because she fears professional repercussions.

The employee is concerned that the children's level of schooling will drop if they don't attend school regularly. She is also worried about potential visits from Quebec's child protection agency (DPJ).

"If the DPJ shows up here and sees that children aren't attending school, it won't be the fault of parents but of our leaders," she said. "If we lose our kids, I will oppose it and so will the entire community."

Cancelled project

According to Chief Wawatie, the school building is more than 50 years old.

Construction of a new school was supposed to start in the 2019-2020 fiscal year but that did not happen. The chief explained there were issues with the land where it was supposed to be built.

The federal government also wants the semi-isolated community to be connected to Hydro-Québec's electric grid before it gives the green light for the construction.

Deciding how the town, which currently relies on a generator, gets its electricity is up to the band council.

Until that changes, construction cannot start, according to Indigenous Services Canada.

In the meantime, the department is working with the band council to improve the state of the existing school, according to spokesperson Nicolas Moquin.

Moquin acknowledges the school building is in poor condition. He says the school's education director told them about the issue on May 25, the same day a Radio-Canada journalist traveled to Barriere Lake to investigate the issue.

Moquin said the federal government has been funding renovations — investing $275,000 last fall to repair the roof.

It also set up an advisory committee that includes Barriere Lake's education agency and the First Nations Education Council for Quebec and Labrador to oversee the project.

Delphine Jung/Radio-Canada
Delphine Jung/Radio-Canada

Controversy and division

The community members who spoke to Radio-Canada predicted that Chief Wawatie would blame the Canadian government for the situation. He did.

"We had this master plan in 1997, but the government pulled out because our ideas weren't in line with their colonial policy," Wawatie said.

Wawatie said an inspection report was done when experts visited the school, but employees said they were never able to consult it. Radio-Canada was also unable to see it, despite asking the band council for a copy.

Now, some of the residents are starting to get impatient.

"They keep telling us 'we have a plan, we have a plan' but where is that plan? We have never seen it," said one of them, whose name CBC/Radio-Canada has agreed to keep confidential because of fear of reprisal for speaking out.

Many residents also criticized the town for prioritizing roadwork and a baseball field instead of a new school.

The 'invisible man'

Delphine Jung/Radio-Canada
Delphine Jung/Radio-Canada

Another problem for many in the community is that the new education director, James McGrogan — who is not Indigenous — is working remotely from Toronto.

"He's not from here, he's a white guy who never comes to meet with the team, the children, he has never set foot in our school," said a resident whose name the CBC/Radio-Canada has agreed to keep confidential.

"He's from the outside, making decisions for everyone."

McGrogran has been nicknamed "the invisible man" by some in the community.

"I told the chief that we need to hire someone who will come to the school, someone who cares, who will come to see the mould," said another community member whose name is also being kept confidential.

"I don't see how [McGrogan] can make decisions without being here in person."

Delphine Jung/Radio-Canada
Delphine Jung/Radio-Canada

Busy with the renovations, Deschenes agrees.

"The director should be here, on the front line," he said.

McGrogan did not respond to Radio-Canada's multiple requests for an interview.

When asked about the situation, Wawatie said he is aware that McGrogan's absence is an issue and took responsibility for the situation.

"We hired him in the middle of the pandemic. During that time, it's hard to get things to move," he said. "We are asking him to come."

In the meantime, Wawatie said he is putting pressure on the federal government to take action.

In a follow-up email to the CBC, the chief said the students have been relocated to other buildings. He said the band council is also in the process of setting up outdoor teaching sessions.

As for the community members, some say they are considering giving the chief and the council an ultimatum: take action quickly, or the issue will be brought to the courts.

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