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MLA calls for new Fort Smith schools, citing residential school legacy

Joseph Burr Tyrrell Elementary School in Fort Smith. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio

Frieda Martselos, Fort Smith’s MLA, is calling for the town’s schools and college residence buildings – which are all former residential schools or day schools – to be replaced.

In the NWT’s Legislative Assembly, Martselos said Paul William Kaeser High School, Joseph Burr Tyrrell Elementary School, and Breynat Hall at Aurora College all have residential school legacies.

“The link between federal Indian day schools and residential schools has already been firmly established by the academia and the testimonies of survivors from both systems,” she said.

“These facilities carry a heavy history of abuse and colonialism that cannot be ignored.



“We know that both systems caused a lot of damage to many of the students who attended these schools.”

More: GNWT report on the history of NWT educational facilities

While the former use of the buildings is the main reason Martselos wants new schools and a new college residence built, she added that both the high school and elementary school are more than 60 years old and “in serious need of replacement.”

Asked about timelines for new schools to be built, education minister RJ Simpson said the lifespans of the elementary school and high school have been extended thanks to good maintenance.



Martselos pointed to a 2003 assessment that had suggested JBT should be replaced in 2018 and PWK in 2020.

“Neither has happened, despite the age and history of both schools,” she said. “I am once again calling upon our government to begin the process to replace and decommission these two facilities.”

Simpson said that while two decades ago JBT’s estimated replacement date may have been around now, a more recent estimate suggests the school will need replacing by 2035.

“It’s hard for me to put numbers out there, dates out there, when obviously things can change,” he cautioned.

“Fort Smith has Aurora College with a trades school, and I think that expertise in trades really has helped those buildings be maintained in excellent condition for many, many years.

“I hear it all the time that the Department of Infrastructure does a good job maintaining schools, at least in the regional centres, and I believe that the longevity is a function of that maintenance.”

Simpson said multiple factors go into determining if a school needs to be replaced, including the state of the physical building and how many students are using the building.

Specifically, the territorial government’s school infrastructure decisions are guided by the Northwest Territories Schools Capital Standards and Criteria, a 2020 document that specifies new schools will be recommended only if:



  • there is no existing building;
  • the current building is deemed to be unsafe, and accompanying criteria around renovating versus building a new school are met; or
  • projected enrolments show the school’s capacity will be exceeded within a certain timeframe.

Breynat Hall’s future

Martselos also spent time in the legislature discussing the legacy of Breynat Hall in Fort Smith, which was a residence for students attending federal day school at Grandin College.

While Grandin College was converted into the PWK high school, Breynat Hall kept its name and became housing for Aurora College students. The building also features a teaching kitchen for the college.

Simpson said the GNWT does have a plan to replace Breynat Hall as part of the transition from Aurora College to a polytechnic university.

“I don’t have a date,” he said. “However, we are working on securing some funding to do the planning study.”

He said the territory hopes the federal government can provide money “to get this going as quickly as possible.”

“Hopefully, you know, we’ll see something in the next budget but if not, I guess we will have to figure something else out,” he said.

The facilities master plan for the pending university transformation states the 52-unit Breynat Hall should be demolished once 52 new student beds have been built and the kitchen teaching space replaced.

“This is an urgent priority for Thebacha campus,” the plan reads, stating that next steps for the former residential school residence site “should be planned only after its future has been discussed and re-imagined through dialogue within the community.”