After two separate community consultations last week, the GNWT has its answer from Hay River: no one wants a school swap.
“We will never, never, never go forward with swapping schools without approval from the other side,” said Simon Lepage, a representative of the Commission Scolaire Francophone (CSF) at a public meeting at Ecole Boreale March 5.
“This is about the whole community, not just our kids.”
The local district education authority and the CSF held meetings for parents and other residents March 4 and 5, respectively. They both formally presented the GNWT’s proposal to move students between Harry Camsell and Ecoloe Boreale in an attempt to satisfy a 2012 court order requiring the government to provide adequate spaces to the French school that were deemed lacking, and they were both shot down.
The current proposal would see two grades from Harry Camsell move into Princess Alexandra School, with the remaining children heading to the Ecole Boreale facility and using Princess Alexandra’s gym.
There are 165 Kindergarten to Grade 3 students in the Harry Camsell School, while the Princess Alexandra School next door has 200 students from Grades 4 to 7.
“The government didn’t have any issues finding money for the Deh Cho Bridge, or the road to (Tuktoyaktuk), they can always find money for their special projects,” said Vince McKay at the meeting March 4. “We have to put our foot down. We have to keep doing this and holding them accountable.”
The sentiment at both meetings was overwhelmingly that the territorial government should invest in bringing Ecole Boreale up to scratch instead instead of spending money on lawsuits. While the cost of the renovations needed to do so for both Yellowknife and Hay River schools is $28 million, district education authority chair Terence Courtoreille said Hay River’s share is around $13 million.
Suzette Montreuil, president of the CSF, said the commission’s legal costs have reached $1.3 million, and as a result of the latest ruling awarding those costs, estimates the price tag for the GNWT is near $3 million so far.
While much of the discussion centered around the French school’s need for a gym, the 2012 ruling also demanded the GNWT provide new spaces for things like a home economics lab, shop class, and more classrooms for Ecole Boreale.
As such, CSF superintendent Marie Leblanc-Warick explained substantial renovations would need to be completed at Harry Camsell even if a school swap was accepted – including an expansion of the current gym to fit the court-mandated 500 square metres.
“We did studies to see if Harry Camsell could be rebuilt or renovated,” she said March 5, adding that the CSF would have liked to see a fitness room and a space for trades training, among other things. “But the level of funding proposed for the renovations is simply not sufficient.”
The CSF presented three options at its meeting. The first was proposed renovations to Ecole Boreale, including a gym, put forward by the GNWT. Leblanc-Warrick said the proposal had failed to meet the court order as well as the actual needs of the student and teaching population at the school and had been sent back.
The second was the school swap, including extensive renovations to Harry Camsell, which the CSF also deemed less than adequate.
The vocal majority of the crowd of about 50 people that evening came out in favour of the third option – going back to negotiations with the GNWT in an attempt to get all the facilities required at Ecole Boreale.
Now that both the DEA and CSF have their direction from the public, it will be up to the GNWT whether it wants to force the swap or continue with the appeal process. The case will be heard in Yellowknife from March 24 to 26, after which – if unhappy with the result – either side can petition for the case to be heard by the Supreme Court of Canada.
Hay River North MLA Robert Bouchard was present and vocal at the meeting at Princess Alexandra March 5, saying that he and his colleague Hay River South MLA Jane Groenewegen had been equally vocal in the legislative assembly regarding the proposed swap, but that it looked like the territorial government is ready to keep going back to appeal.
“The GNWT is going to fight the system,” he told the crowd. “They’re telling us they would rather fight the court case, all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary.”
There is no guarantee the highest judicial authority in the country would agree to hear the case, but if it did, it would represent a substantial investment of both time and money for both sides.
“Here, I’m going to talk to the parents who aren’t from Boreale,” Montreuil said at the meeting at the French school. “(Further court processes) would mean four and five and six years of inadequate facilities for our students and staff. I ask you to go back to your boards and ask them to be accommodating when they work with us to share spaces like gyms and trade centres.”
While the current court order links the situations in Hay River and Yellowknife, Courtoreille said that his understanding of the matter is that if one community settles and the other keeps fighting, the two would become separate and be free to seek their own final decision.
“I’m not ready to settle,” said Pennie Pokiak at the March 4 meeting. “It doesn’t matter which kids are in there, if we move, we’re just shifting the problem to another group of kids.”
Her sentiment was echoed many times over, at both schools on both nights.
“We’re seeing schools being overbuilt in other places. The GNWT is willing to invest in other communities,” said Mayor Andrew Cassidy, also a parent. “Let’s hold their feet to the fire on this one.”
Silence draws questions
While chairperson Terence Courtoreille indicated the Hay River District Education Authority had met with teachers at Harry Camsell last fall, he also said they had not met since. Although many teachers were present at the meeting March 5, their voices were notably not present in the discussion.
“Has the DEA gone back to the staff or the employees to ask what they think is best for the children?” asked Vince McKay. “Because that’s what this is all about right?”
When asked if there is a gag order in place on the teachers – who are employed by the GNWT, not the DEA – Courtoreille said he is not aware of one. His words, however, caused a stir in the audience as the many teachers present muttered or outright shouted to the contrary.
“I’ve got a huge rock in my shoe here,” said Keith Dohey. “There’s a faction of people in this room who spend as much time, or more, with these kids than anyone. Why aren’t they being allowed to speak? That’s a huge issue.”