A new school for students in a flooded-out First Nation is still two years away, but the Lake St. Martin band hailed the official signing of construction plans as a historic day Friday.
"This is something all the community members are looking forward to," said Lake St. Martin Coun. John Ross.
Chief Adrian Sinclair said the new $18-million school will go up till Grade 12 — a first for the community, which up to this point had to send students off reserve to go to high school.
The school is being built by Stantec Consulting and the firm's plan is to have it ready for fall of 2019.
In addition to 12 classrooms, it will feature a soccer field, a baseball diamond and a skating rink — all amenities the old Lake St. Martin School never had.
"The children are very excited," Sinclair said.
The Interlake-area First Nation flooded when the provincial government diverted floodwaters to Lake St. Martin in May 2011. The community was destroyed after the flood and no one has been able to return so far.
Sinclair said Friday he hopes to have residents housed on a new reserve next to the old one this fall.
Since being relocated to Winnipeg in 2011, students from the community have gone to school in an old junior high on Ness Avenue.
The school has been subject to numerous fire and safety code violations in recent years and has closed down several times.
School officials say the school doesn't offer students the same learning they'd receive back home on reserve.
Lake St. Martin vice principal Susan Ryle-Munroe said dropouts have been a problem and students have turned to drugs and some as young as 12 have joined city gangs.
Missing way of life back home
"They don't know the way of life back home," said Ryle-Munroe.
"We can't go out there and make a fire and teach kids how to make a fire or out to make outdoor tea and stuff like that. We had the freedom to do that when we were home," she said.
To make up for the lack of outdoor Indigenous learning, the school has taken students to Fisher River, Man.
There, students spent a week learning traditional hunting methods and snared rabbits.
"It was fun. When I caught the rabbit it was frozen and I had to like carry it by the feet," said 10-year-old Mia Beardy, who has gone to five different schools in Winnipeg since 2011.
Students could face culture shock
Ryle-Munroe said she worries how young Lake St. Martin students, who've never been in their home community, will adapt the day the community goes to its new reserve.
"That's going to be another story. How do you transition them back?" she said.
"We've been talking about this to the kids, your home is gone, Lake St. Martin is basically gone, we're going home to a new community."
Friday's announcement ended with an emotional prayer from Betty Traverse, a Lake St. Martin elder.
"We all want to go home, Lord," Traverse, 76, said.