Manitoba wildfire evacuees starting school year in hotel rooms rather than classrooms

The new school year has started with a learning curve of a different sort for Amanda Martin, William Keeper and their family. 

The couple and their three school-age children have been living in a Winnipeg hotel room since forest fires forced them out of their eastern Manitoba home community of Little Grand Rapids at the end of July.

They thought they would be back home by now, but delays in restoring power on the First Nation have extended their stay.

Now, alternative plans are being made to school 219 Little Grand Rapids students from kindergarten to Grade 9 who can’t yet go home.

Keeper says he just wants the students back “into some kind of classroom.”

“I don’t want them falling back with their schooling and that. But they should be starting off sometime this week. They are getting something going for the kids here, which I think is good,” said Keeper, with his 10-year-old son, William Jr., by his side.

Little Grand Rapids band Coun. Clinton Keeper says teachers and assistants from the community who are still in Winnipeg met Friday to map out a plan for how kids will be taught. 

“They are going to start preparing homework packages so the students can do their work from the hotels where they are staying,” Coun. Keeper said. “So they will be doing home-schooling from the hotels.”

Little Grand Rapids Coun. Clinton Keeper says this summer’s wildfires have delayed construction of a new $37-million school in the community. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Another option is to send students to Winnipeg schools. While that transition is working for high school students from Little Grand Rapids, it’s not practical for younger children, William Keeper said.

“We don’t have any transportation. How would these kids get to and from school? They would have to arrange for a school bus to pick them up. Schooling them in the hotel or a rented space close by makes more sense, ” he said.

His wife agrees. Amanda Martin is a computer teacher from the First Nations community.

“There are teaching assistants here, teachers — it kind of brings us all together,” she said. “If we can get some space, we can help these students. I am not worried about them falling behind.”

She says she’ll be happy to get back into the classroom back home, but she doesn’t know when that will happen.

Manitoba Hydro is working as quickly as possible to restore power and let people get back home, a spokesperson for the Crown utility told CBC in an email statement.

The work of replacing fire-damaged poles is made challenging by the lack of road access — meaning much of it must be done by helicopter — and the difficulty of setting poles in rocky Canadian Shield terrain, Hydro says. Weather conditions have also caused delays.

As of last Thursday, 48 of the 88 damaged poles had been replaced, the spokesperson said. The estimated restoration time, subject to weather and air accessibility, is approximately four to six weeks.

‘They just want to go home’

In addition to keeping evacuees from getting back home, the forest fires and the delay in restoring power have also put construction of a new $37-million school in Little Grand Rapids on hold. 

“It’s under construction, but since the evacuation, all work has stopped,” said Coun. Keeper. “Our completion date was March 2022, so it’s going to set it back again a few months, probably.”

The bottom line, he says, is everyone just wants to get back home.

“They are frustrated. They just want to go home. Home is home. They miss home,” he said.

“Four to five people living in one small room — there are too many elements here for high school kids to get into trouble. Alcohol and drugs are so accessible.”

The Canadian Red Cross says it is still supporting more than 1,500 evacuees from Pauingassi First Nation and Little Grand Rapids.  

A spokesperson for the relief organization says it is doing all it can to support the community members in Winnipeg, including providing space for students and teachers to ensure students receive schooling while out of their homes.

It’s not known how many students from Pauingassi are still in Winnipeg. The chief and council couldn’t be reached for comment. 

While Amanda Martin and William Keeper are hoping to be back home soon, William Jr. isn’t in so much of a rush.

The Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata community services centre, Child and Family Services and the Red Cross have been working to provide activities to entertain and occupy the kids, ranging from bouncing on trampolines and go-karting to visits to the zoo and the beach. 

“My favourite is the activity room in the hotel, playing games on the computer and swimming,” said William Jr. 

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