Needing a new school, Colville Lake breaks an old mould
Colville Lake’s buildings are distinctive. As Chief Wilbert Kochon likes to say, log homes are important to the Sahtu community’s look and feel.
The school, like the spectacular log church, conveys a warmth and craftsmanship intrinsic to the Behdzi Ahda First Nation, whose members make up most of Colville Lake’s residents.
But the buildings have to withstand the Sahtu’s elements with limited resources, and Colville Lake’s school is no exception. It’s tiny and it’s falling apart.
“The building itself is beautiful,” said former teacher Heather Evans. “It’s just very small.”
So small, in fact, that Evans described kids packed so tightly that they would have had to crawl over each other to get out.
“The building itself was definitely a barrier to doing my job,” said Evans.
“The dividers [between classrooms] didn’t reach the ceiling, so classroom management is a challenge. At one point, the septic tank cracked, and that was a real issue.”
In the NWT’s Legislative Assembly, Colville Lake’s school has been called “dire,” “unacceptable” and, as Sahtu MLA Paulie Chinna put it, “shocking.”
Reports about conditions at the school have noted absenteeism and staff burnout, but that wasn’t Evans’ experience.
“I loved teaching there. The community is small, so you have to be OK with that. They felt like a family towards the end,” said Evans, a middle and high school teacher.
“There’s a lack of knowing, or understanding, about the Dene culture, but if you immerse yourself in everything that’s going on, your experience will be beautiful.”
Many students don’t attend school during periods when they are out on the land with their families, or if they are working on chores such as gathering and chopping wood.
“There are some in the community that depend entirely on wood stoves for heat,” said Evans. “That takes priority over everything. Teachers have to be willing to work around that.
“It’s also common for students to go out on the land for three months of the year, hunting and trapping and coming back by bush plane.”
Evans learned to work with students rather than against them by assigning reports to complete while they were out on the land, and including a wider variety of skills and activities than those found in the curriculum – an experience she wrote about while there.
“I would love to see a new school with proper classrooms, and the old school used as a community space of a different kind,” she said.
“But I don’t know. There was always talk of a new school coming, but the dream felt far away.”
New approach to building a school
While Evans ultimately returned home following the death of a close friend, she had wanted to stay in Colville Lake.
Chief Kochon knows Colville Lake has a charm that touches visitors, even if issues related to housing – high prices, a lack of legal protection for renters – can make it hard for the community to hold on to teachers. Like Evans, many love the job and feel embraced in spite of those challenges.
“You do hear that a lot,” he says. “Especially from the good teachers. The kids really loved her.
“So if she hears this, she’s welcome to come back. And if we have to pull some strings, we’ll pull those strings for her!” He laughs.
In 2016, the Behdzi Ahda First Nation submitted a proposal for the NWT government to fund development of a design and cost estimate for a new school. That proposal was approved.
“They wanted to be the lead on this project,” said RJ Simpson, the territory’s education minister.
Having the First Nation be the lead is not how schools in the NWT normally get built.
“Generally, when the government wants to build a new school, it will go ahead and consult with the community and ensure that the design is reflective of the wants of the community,” said Simpson, “but it’s ultimately the Government of the Northwest Territories that goes ahead and is the lead on designing and building the school.”
After hearing from residents of Colville Lake, territorial leaders decided to try this different approach. While that has handed the community more of a say, the new process has required time.
“We said yes, let’s give that a shot,” said the minister. “Because of that, it’s been a different process and we’re learning as we go.
“It hasn’t been as quick as it might otherwise have been. When you compound that with Covid, yes, it has taken quite a while, but there has been steady progress the whole time.”
The minister says getting specialist workers to pick out a site and perform geotechnical work has also taken time. In the past month, the First Nation has set out plans for more drilling on a parcel of land now considered the best bet for the new building.
In the meantime, the territory doesn’t think the existing building can go on. The minister is working to get portable units delivered to Colville Lake as an interim measure.
“The new school is still four or five years away so, starting in 2023, we will have some new portables that will be used as the school,” said Simpson.
If the school is in such poor condition, why the wait?
“There’s no road to Colville Lake and they’re not on the Mackenzie River, so it’s difficult to get goods in there,” the minister said.
“Our only option is the winter road, and our budget won’t be passed until the end of March. That’s not enough time to get it up there before the winter road is out for the year.”
‘A school we can maintain’
The NWT has education standards that outline specific amounts of space per student and resources that should be accessible once a certain number of students is reached. Approval of funding for the school depends on whether the GNWT determines those standards have been met once a design is submitted.
But Kochon says GNWT standards have, in the past, sometimes created problems of their own.
He gives an example: the GNWT stipulates that buildings be repaired by those certified to do so, certifications that aren’t available in the community. This means hiring others to fly in and address the problem, which takes time and resources that could be used on other projects. In the meantime, buildings languish.
“Any problem around heating, water, pipes, costs a lot of money,” said Kochon. “Even just replacing a light bulb or fixing some switch costs about $10,000. It’s kind-of a cash cow for people who are coming in to fix the same thing, over and over. Settlement policy is that you need certificates to do certain things. That because of liability, [the GNWT] needs certified people to check these things out.
“It happens in our housing, too. They put in heaters that no one’s certified to fix. If one breaks, it’s a $4,000 replacement. We googled it and realized that it’s a simple fix, so people start to try to fix them – but they get penalized for it.”
Kochon says this framework limits his ability to problem-solve and flows money steadily out of Colville Lake when it could be staying with residents. That’s why he wanted the school’s design and build to be local.
“We want a school we can maintain ourselves and keep all the work here,” Kochon said.
“We’re still going to need materials from other places but we can train people here and know what to do when something breaks down.”
The community hopes the new school will represent Colville Lake’s beautiful architecture as distinctly as the old one, but this time it won’t just be on the outside – from the plumbing to the floors and heating, Kochon envisages every piece will be built and maintained by the community.
The chief believes the GNWT, initially skeptical in his eyes, has come around. The First Nation is actively working on a plan for the school and says an engineer and project manager are on board.
“Everything’s falling into place,” said Kochon.
“The building belongs to us. And I think [the GNWT] understands that. As long as we keep working together, we can finish this thing off.”