Ross River Dena Council wants a new school, just not where the current one is

The Ross River Dena Council says it wants a new school for the community — but there's a twist.

The First Nation doesn't want a new building anywhere in the existing community.

In fact, the First Nation plans to move the community to an entirely new location, and that's where it wants the new school to be built.

The Ross River school has been plagued with problems for nearly 20 years.

It opened in 2000, and began experiencing problems with its foundation and shifting ground. The problems have persisted through multiple repairs, including a major renovation in 2015, when the entire building was levelled out. By 2017, engineers were urging the government to re-level the building yet again.

The school was to receive repairs this summer, including installing a refrigeration cooling system and insulation in the crawl space to try and keep the ground under the building frozen.

Only one company bid on that work, however, and the government has halted the contract saying it was $200,000 over the allotted budget.

Nancy Thomson/CBC

Franklin Charlie, director of lands and capital with Ross River Dena Council, says there's no point in building a new school on ground that's proven to be unsuitable.

Charlie says every year the First Nation struggles with shifting houses which must be jacked up, and water, fuel and septic lines repaired after they break from the heaving ground.

He says there's no way a large building such as a school can be built on that ground without massive foundation problems.

"Best way to address that problem, I think, is to move the whole community out of this riverbed, then you wouldn't have all those repairs on your hands all the time," says Charlie.

'Nothing but problems': Chief

Chief Jack Caesar agrees it's time to abandon the current townsite.

"This place has been giving us nothing but problems," says Caesar.

He says to begin with, the First Nation would have a subdivision in the new area about seven kilometres away, while many homes remain on the current townsite.

"It'll be a subdivision and then we're considering busing the students from here to there."

The First Nation says it's hopeful following the recent visit from Yukon Education Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee and Public Works Minister Richard Mostyn.

But they are also looking for some firm answers on the school.

Nancy Thomson/CBC

"We're hoping and we are praying that we get an answer about getting a new school," says Verna Nukon, an elected councillor with the First Nation.

Nukon says the First Nation suggested that a planning committee be established to plan a new school. 

"That way everyone in the community of Ross River has a say," she says.

She says though the government and engineers have vouched for the school's structural stability, people in the community are afraid of using the school.

"They're concerned, they're afraid," says Nukon. "We don't know how the building is going to react to a big wind or earthquake for example. It's pretty concerning." 

People unconvinced

Clifford McLeod is among those unconvinced. 

"It's not right — put[ting] our children in danger ... I think they should just build a new one somewhere else," said McLeod.

People also question putting more public money into repairing the existing building.

James Dick wonders if this situation would be tolerated at a Whitehorse school.

Nancy Thomson/CBC

"I'm pretty sure if this was happening in Whitehorse, they'd be all over it. Start planning for a new school. Now," said Dick.

As for the school's immediate future, the MLA for Ross River has some questions.

Stacey Hassard, who represents Pelly-Nisutlin riding for the Yukon Party, wants to know why there hasn't been a public meeting on the school.

"A school really is the centrepiece or focal point in many of the small communities," said Hassard. "You don't want children and staff being unsure if the place where they're going everyday is actually safe or not."

Hassard says the problems with the building are obvious and potentially dangerous — such as a double fire door that only opens after considerable pulling and pushing, because it sticks in place where the floor has shifted.

Hassard says the Yukon government has avoided taking corrective action on the building, noting that an engineering report after the May 2017 earthquake "strongly recommended" that the building be completely re-levelled, again.

"It's not fair at all to the community," he says.

"That's why I've asked the minister on numerous occasions to please come to the community, hold public meetings ... Something needs to be done."

Chief Jack Caesar agrees with Hassard, saying he wishes the Yukon government would make a decision.

"Their response was ... not very decisive," says Caesar. "I'm hoping that we get an answer soon — a definite answer."

As for whether the government will actually build a new school, Caesar says "there was really no commitment."