THUNDER BAY – Days after a group of 49 northern Ontario First Nations indicated a lack of funding meant schools may not be able to safely operate due to COVID-19, the federal government is pledging help is on the way.
That’s no guarantee the schools will be ready for the scheduled start of classes in September, however – and details on the federal commitment remain scarce.
Health Minister and Thunder Bay-Superior North MP Patty Hajdu said Tuesday she was unaware of the circumstances that led to Nishnawbe Aski Nation’s request for $33 million in safe restart funding allegedly going ignored for over a month by the government’s Indigenous Services department.
However, she was reassured by a public pledge from Indigenous Services Minister Mar Miller to work directly with NAN, who she called "a man of his word."
“I can’t speak to what happened with the communication between NAN and the bureaucracy – who knows?” she said. “But the Minister made a very public commitment yesterday that he will work with NAN himself to make sure we understand those requests and together put in place measures that will protect the students of NAN territory.”
The provincial government shares a jurisdictional responsibility for urban First Nations schools like Dennis Franklin Cromarty, in Thunder Bay, or Pelican Falls in Sioux Lookout, she noted.
NAN Deputy Grand Chief Derek Fox has indicated those schools are among some that may not be ready to welcome students for in-class learning in September. He put the problem down to a lack of funding for measures like additional staff, enhanced cleaning, and PPE.
The government’s ability to address those issues in time for school start will depend on the specifics of the request, Hajdu said.
“If it is a ventilation system and we’re just finding out about that now, then that can take time to replace,” she said. “But if it’s something smaller, for example PPE or hand sanitizer, that can be facilitated really quickly.”