Portable classrooms called ‘Band-Aid solution’ in Colville Lake, N.W.T.

The Colville Lake School, pictured in January 2020. Residents of Colville Lake, N.W.T., say their community needs a new school and there’s confusion over what’s holding the project up. (John Last/CBC)

The N.W.T. government is spending $3.9 million on new portable classrooms for the school in Colville Lake, but some community members say that’s a Band-Aid solution and what they actually need is a new school.

Colville Lake’s Behdzi Ahda First Nation has long been planning for a new school to deal with overcrowding, unreliable heating and plumbing at the existing facility. The territorial government got behind the project a few years ago, but since then the plans appear to have stalled.

Now the territory is looking to deliver three new portable buildings, and leaders in the Sahtu community say they’re not convinced those will help.

“I’d rather have a new school than let us spend a lot of money on portables,” said Sahtu Grand Chief Wilbert Kochon. “It just seems like they keep putting little Band-Aids.”

Kochon said he’s also worried the portables will require continuous maintenance on plumbing and heat — issues they already deal with in the current school building.

Wilbert Kochon, Sahtu Dene Council Grand Chief, pictured in January 2020. (John Last/CBC)

Behdzi Ahda band councilor Alvin Orlias said the portables are a way for the territorial government to save some money now and push back funding a new school.

“More Band-Aid solutions,” Orlias said.

The territory’s Minister of Education, Culture and Employment (ECE), Caitlin Cleveland, acknowledged the portables are just a temporary solution while planning for the new facility continues.

“Having permanent portables is not the end goal,” she said. “The end goal is a beautiful new school for the community of Colville Lake.”

In the meantime, she said, the community still has a need for more space for students.

The portables will be delivered from Edmonton to Colville Lake by winter road either this winter or next, according to a spokesperson for the department of Infrastructure.

Their arrival depends on how long it takes to get the proper permits and plans together, and the conditions of the winter road for traveling with the 45-tonne portables, spokesperson Darren Campbell said in an email.

Two of those portables will be used as classrooms and the third will be a washroom and mechanical room.

Unclear what’s happening with new school project

Orlias has three kids who currently attend the school. He says overcrowding is the biggest issue with the current facility, as all classrooms are crammed together in the small building with only partitions to separate them.

“You need peace and quiet in order to learn, you can’t learn in a real chaotic environment,” he said. “There’s too many distractions.”

In 2015, students draw in the part of Colville Lake’s one-room schoolhouse that holds cultural studies. Orlias says classrooms are crammed together in the small building with only partitions to separate them. (Hilary Bird/CBC)

In 2021, the territorial government signed a contribution agreement with the First Nation to work on a design and cost estimate for the new school.

When he was chief of Behdzi Ahda, Kochon was part of the team making those plans.

He says the new school will have a child-care space so new parents can get an education, a commercial kitchen where students can pick up part-time work, and a full-sized gym so athletes can be more competitive in sporting events.

He says he’s proud to help design a facility to meet the community’s needs.

“You build something that suits you, just like you’re putting the right shoe in the right place and it fits. And that’s how we did it.”

But leaders in Colville Lake aren’t sure about where or why the project appears to have stalled.

Kochon said he thinks it had to do with an employee quitting after payment disputes. Orlias said he heard the project had been shelved by the territory.

Behdzi Ahda Chief Richard Kochon said he thought funding problems were holding up progress. The chief said he hasn’t been involved in the project since the start and suggested CBC News reach the band manager for more details. The band manager was not available to respond to CBC’s questions prior to the deadline.

The contribution agreement with the territory expired in December 2022 and Cleveland says the department is just waiting for the results of that work to move forward.

She says she expects discussions about the new school to come up at meetings with education leaders at the beginning of April.

Related stories from around the North :

Canada : Nunavik housing shortage–The far-reaching impacts on education, Eye on the Arctic

Greenland : University of Greenland’s new curriculum aims to up graduates for teaching roles, Eye on the Arctic

Norway: Sami-led project seeks to revitalize Indigenous education across Arctic Europe, Eye on the Arctic

Russia: German project to house everything published in Siberian and Arctic languages to seek new funding, Eye on the Arctic

Natalie Pressman, CBC News

Natalie Pressman is a reporter with CBC North in Yellowknife. She can be reached at natalie.pressman@cbc.ca or on Twitter at @natpressman.

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