Parents in Colville Lake, N.W.T., speak out about school trip that gave their kids serious frostbite

A log house in front of Colville Lake School in Colville Lake, N.W.T., pictured in January 2020. The school has not provided any details about the November trip, but some parents want answers about what went wrong. (John Last/CBC - image credit)
A log house in front of Colville Lake School in Colville Lake, N.W.T., pictured in January 2020. The school has not provided any details about the November trip, but some parents want answers about what went wrong. (John Last/CBC - image credit)

Warning: This story contains a graphic image of frostbite.

Some parents in Colville Lake, N.W.T., are speaking out about an overnight school trip last November that gave their kids serious frostbite.

Jennifer Lafferty, whose daughter Pearl was on the trip, says she told the Sahtú Divisional Education Council (SDEC), the governing body of the school, about the incident but hasn't heard anything about an investigation or disciplinary measures for the teacher who was in charge. Lafferty feels the incident hasn't been taken seriously enough.

Pearl Lafferty, who was 10 at the time of the incident, came back from the trip with such severe frostbite on her legs and face that she was taken to the Norman Wells health centre — 150 kilometres away — to be treated for nine days.

According to parents, the trip on Nov. 29 involved a group of 12 students and four supervisors travelling by snowmobile, with at least one teacher along. The SDEC did not answer questions about whether any supervisors were trained in first aid.

Jennifer said parents were told before the excursion that students would be going camping on the land overnight, and that they should dress appropriately. It was about –30 C that day. Jennifer said Pearl was wearing winter gear when she went out.

Then before the group left, Jennifer said she got a text from the teacher, asking if Pearl could drive a snowmobile.

"I told him, 'Well, I'd rather her not drive the Ski-Doo if it's gonna be cold out, like she should be in the sled,'" Jennifer recalled.

According to Jennifer, Pearl did end up driving a snowmobile. It was during this drive that somehow her snow pants were pushed up her legs, exposing the skin on her lower legs where she got frostbite. The wind also caused frostbite on her face.

Alicia Orlias, another student on the trip, also drove a snowmobile and ended up with her ear severely frostbitten from the ride out, according to her mother Stephanie Orlias.

"I was really mad about that. Like, they had all the kids sitting on the Ski-Doos when they should have been in the sled," Stephanie said.

Both parents said riding in a sled behind the snowmobiles would have provided their children more cover from the wind. Driving the snowmobiles makes it easier for winter gear to move around and expose skin to the winter elements, they argue.

Both Pearl and another student also got separated from the teacher on the ride out to camp.

"They're just little kids out, like they can't drive fast," said Jennifer.

Jennifer said two other students also experienced frostbite from the journey to the camp. CBC News reached out to a third parent who confirmed the event but didn't provide details.

CBC News also reached out to the teacher by phone and Facebook, but didn't receive a response. CBC News is not naming the teacher pending the outcome of an investigation by the SDEC.

SDEC superintendent Renee Closs told CBC News in an email that the SDEC is taking steps to look into and address the situation. She wouldn't comment on the specifics of the investigation.

Closs said parental consent for school excursions "is always sought in advance of the activity taking place."

Overnight at the camp

When the group did finally arrive at the camp that night, the frostbitten students apparently spent the night before it was decided they needed medical attention.

Pearl and Alicia returned to town the next day, after being picked up by some other community members and family.

Jennifer said Pearl arrived back in town crying from the pain.

Pearl was taken to the health centre in Colville Lake where it was determined that she needed to go to the larger health centre in Norman Wells.

Jennifer Lafferty
Jennifer Lafferty

Pearl's frostbite has since healed, although there are still some scars on her legs.

Alicia came back from the trip with her ear red and swollen. Stephanie said she took her daughter to the health centre where she got ointment, and after a couple days a bubble formed in Alicia's ear. Stephanie said the bubble went away after around a week and Alicia's been alright since, although her ear does occasionally get irritated.

Incident ignored, parent says

Jennifer said Pearl no longer wants to go out on the land after the experience.

"When she came back, she said 'I'm never going to bush with them again.' And, us, we pretty much like raised up our kids in the bush — and her dad is going to the bush tomorrow and he asked her and she just said, 'no,'" Jennifer said.

Jennifer said she feels as though the incident has been ignored.

She said she was briefly in touch with Closs, to whom she sent photos of her daughter's injuries, but hasn't heard of any investigation or discipline.

"She said she's gonna investigate it, but to this day I never heard back from her," Jennifer said.

"It's just like saying, 'Oh, it's OK what those teachers did.' Just like, being brushed aside."

R.J. Simpson, the N.W.T. minister of education, said in an emailed statement to CBC News that the SDEC is taking the appropriate steps to investigate.

Simpson also said on-the-land programming is an important part of education in the N.W.T. but that the "health, well-being and safety of students is of the utmost importance and must be taken into account in all activities."