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Attawapiskat's new school undergoing repairs after being closed due to flood

Attawapiskat school closed by flood

A new school in a remote northern Ontario indigenous community has been closed for more than a month after a malfunctioning sprinkler system flooded the building.

Band council members in Attawapiskat First Nation say the break inside the $30 million elementary school, the only one available to serve the roughly 400 students in the community, leaving much of one floor under water.

Chief Executive Wayne Turner says there have been no classes since the sprinkler malfunctioned on Jan. 7.

He says repairs to the building are underway and hopes students will be back in the school in a matter of weeks.

The triumphant opening of the school in 2014 put an end to a 14-year period during which the community had to teach its youngest students in portable classrooms due to a lack of proper facilities.

Turner says the latest setback, one of many for a community that's been grappling with a youth suicide crisis and a chronic housing shortage, is very disheartening.

"How would you feel," Turner wearily asked in a telephone interview, describing the community reaction as one of anger and "extreme frustration."

Turner said the sprinkler malfunctioned on a Saturday when class was not in session and only one staff member was on hand. By the time crews turned the water off about 30 minutes after the flood began, he said 60 per cent of the first floor was under 2 1/2 to 10 centimetres of water.

He blamed the flood on a mistake during construction of the long-awaited school.

"During the construction there was an installation error," he alleged. "It was unfortunately not detected. It lasted for two years, then it broke."

Turner said students have been receiving take-home assignments in the weeks since the school closed, but did not know particulars of how they were being evaluated.

The head of the Attawapiskat First Nations Education Authority, Miriam Wesley, said she had "nothing to say" about the school closure.

Turner said repairs to the building are currently on track to be completed by Feb. 17, adding school was scheduled to be on a break the following week.

He said he hoped students could return after the previously scheduled holiday, but said the Education Authority was responsible for such decisions.

For some community members, the problem at the elementary school is the latest in a long line of disappointments.

Katrina Metatawabin-Sutherland said the school was greeted with much excitement when it opened its doors in September 2014. She said she was impressed by the gym with a stage, the bright, spacious hallways and the up-to-date facilities throughout the two-storey building.

Despite the significant upgrade, however, she said she plans to move out of the community before her son reaches school age so he can be educated in a larger centre.

She said Timmins, Ont., will offer more opportunities for extra-curricular activities, but said she has no sense that positive change in Attawapiskat will last.

"I guess that's the other reason why. We got this nice new school but it didn't even last two years," she said. "I'll want my son to be able to go to class every day."

Attawapiskat has long occupied headlines for a rash of social problems plaguing the community on the shores of James Bay.

The community has grappled with a long-term housing shortage for years, and Turner said the original elementary school closed in 2000 due to a combination of "diesel contamination and structural issues."

Last April, Attawapiskat's chief declared a state of emergency after a spike in suicide attempts among the community's youth. At one point officials said they thwarted what they called a suicide pact by 13 young aboriginal people, including a nine-year-old.

Social media posts show teachers in Attawapiskat still organizing arts circles and other activities for the children impacted by the recent flooding. None responded to a request for comment.

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Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press