01/10/2012 02:52 EST | Updated 03/11/2012 05:12 EDT

Pikangikum: School On Ontario First Nation Cancels Classes Due To Mould Problems

OTTAWA - The only school in a troubled northwestern Ontario First Nation has closed down almost all of its classes because mould has driven away many of its teachers.

The Pikangikum First Nation says it has seen almost all the non-local teachers leave the community of 2,400 because of mould growing in the teachers' residences.

As a result, officials say less than half of the school's elementary programs are running, and none of the secondary programs are operating.

Since Monday, about 85 per cent of the 732 students at Eenchokay Birchstock School have been kept out of class for lack of teachers.

"It's been a hard week," director of education Kyle Peters said in a telephone interview. "It's been kind of hard to tell them to stay home."

The Ojibway band has enough local teachers to maintain five junior and senior kindergarten classes, and one class each of Grades 2, 4 and 5. Everyone else is out of luck, Peters said.

Most of the school's teachers fly in from elsewhere and stay in teachers' quarters during the school year. One of the teachers fell ill, and an air-quality assessment was ordered.

The assessment late last week revealed that the quarters were widely contaminated, Peters said. The teachers have nowhere else to stay, since the reserve has a chronic housing shortage. So they left the reserve and on Monday, classes were cancelled.

Band leaders are arranging for a clean-up of the mould and hope to increase native language classes handled by local teachers. But they're not convinced their plans will work in time to save the school year.

"We're of course going to try to keep it open, but it's just impossible," Peters said.

One option may be to extend the school year to make up for lost time in January, as long as the clean-up doesn't take too long.

A spokeswoman for Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan said federal officials are aware of the situation and are working with the First Nation to deal with health and safety.

Peters added that the Pikangikum Education Authority takes full responsibility for the mould problems and the clean-up, but are hoping for federal help.

"The government of Canada must immediately provide adequate living quarters so that teachers can return to the community and these students can get back to class as soon as possible so they don't lose the entire school year," said Terry Waboose, deputy grand chief with the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, an advocacy group for Pikangikum and 48 other northern Ontario First Nations.

The news comes as First Nations leaders prepare to meet Prime Minister Stephen Harper for a high-profile summit in Ottawa. The gathering on Jan. 24 is to focus on education.

The federal government says improvements to aboriginal education are a priority. Ottawa is are considering a plan that would introduce legislation and create school board arrangements for First Nations.

But Ottawa needs to be dealing with basic infrastructure and resource problems first, before it starts meddling with the structure of the education system, says Waboose.

"A panel is not going to solve it, or enacting First Nations legislation on education, unless there is proper investment as well," he said in a telephone interview.

Pikangikum has been dealing with education issues for years. Its school burnt down in 2007, and has been replaced only by portables.

At the same time, youth in the community have been struggling with addictions and poverty. Five people between the ages of 16 and 26 killed themselves this summer. Between 2006 and 2008, 16 youths between 10 and 19 years old took their own lives.

"These are kids who have been going to school in outrageous conditions," said Joseph Magnet, a law professor at the University of Ottawa and an adviser to the Pikangikum First Nation. "We'd be going nuts if it were our kids."

First Nations communities across the northern part of Ontario, including the Cree reserves of Attawapiskat and Kashechewan, have faced years of chronic underfunding and lack of investment in infrastructure and housing, Magnet said.

Now the neglect has prompted crises in many communities, but First Nations leaders feel they are not being heard.

"They are basically at war with the government," Magnet said. "It's breeding conditions in our country that are really serious."

Officials in Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan's office did not immediately respond to questions.