November 30. December 6. January 24. March 14. March 23. April 6. These six dates each have something in common.
They were all occasions on which the smell of sewage was so overwhelming that students at Hay River’s École Boréale abandoned any hope of learning for the day.
Some days, they tried to avoid the smell – in the portable unit used by high school students – by moving elsewhere or outside. Other times, they were simply sent home.
It’s not just those days, either. It’s been years.
“When the problem occurs, there is an obnoxious and putrid odour in our building, and many students have felt physically ill, nauseous and have headaches,” Grade 11 student Josée Touesnard told education minister RJ Simpson in a letter she shared with Cabin Radio. Simpson is a Hay River MLA, as is his father, Rocky, to whom Touesnard also wrote.
“My schoolmates and I have missed countless school days as we have been sent home due to toilets not functioning correctly,” she told the Simpsons.
“Unfortunately, our high school has become an inadequate learning environment.
“I am requesting a permanent solution to our ongoing septic issues. Perhaps someone can replace our washrooms, or we can have a plumber inspect and finally fix the problem.”
School trustees suspect ‘miscommunication’
Both RJ Simpson and Rocky Simpson have responded since Touesnard sent her letter at the start of the week.
According to Touesnard, the education minister told her the letter “really helped me understand the extent of the impact this was having on the students.”
“We have been working with the Minister of Infrastructure in the hopes of getting this issue dealt with once and for all. I will keep you updated on any progress,” Touesnard said Minister Simpson had written in response. Rocky Simpson had shared similar sentiments, she said.
Jean de Dieu Tuyishime represents the board of trustees for the Commission scolaire francophone, which oversees École Boréale.
He said the board had received assurances from the minister that work would take place this summer to solve the problem, which he understood to involve poor connections between sewage pipes.
“I think there was a miscommunication between Infrastructure and ECE,” said Tuyishime, who provided the list of dates above.
“This has been a problem for years and years, and we thought there was communication between those two. But things are what they are.
“We were just very insistent, because we do not want to have another school year with the same problem. The students are not going to take it any more. The staff too, and also the board of trustees. We are not going to accept that.”
After this article was first published, the Department of Education, Culture and Employment said in a statement: “There have been ongoing sewage back-up issues in the École Boréale portables, which have increased in frequency this school year. The Department of Infrastructure has been addressing the issues as a maintenance item.
“The Department of Infrastructure has identified work to be done this summer to connect the portables to a newer sewer line to rectify the issue.”
The department confirmed a meeting took place with the school board’s superintendent on Tuesday “to confirm the upcoming planned work and verify the window of opportunity for the work to take place.”
“The GNWT is developing a timeline for the work to address the situation as early as possible while minimizing disruption to student learning,” the department stated.
Time for ‘a real high school’?
Touesnard said many of her friends have also written to the education minister about the situation, which she believes has been happening – on and off – for at least three years.
She said one solution would be to give École Boréale’s high school students a dedicated school building, rather than the portable unit currently in place.
“Maybe it is finally time for us students to have a real high school that meets our essential needs,” Touesnard wrote to RJ and Rocky Simpson.
“Honestly, I am very frustrated,” she told Cabin Radio. “I think all the students are. It’s gotten to the point where it’s become normalized but it should have been addressed a long time ago.
“Over 10 times this year, we’ve been sent home or our bathrooms weren’t working.”
Tuyishime said the Commission scolaire francophone would raise the question of a new school building with the territorial government.
“This portable was there just temporarily, because the students in the high school needed a place. They used to be in Diamond Jenness,” he said, referring to another nearby school, “or sometimes they went to the Ptarmigan Inn.
“They said they were going to build us an extension for the high school. But now it has been 13 years.”