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Remote northern Ont. First Nation students receive support after only school burned down

Several teens have been arrested in connection with a fire that destroyed the community's only school. (Photo courtesy of photographer Chris Papah) Several teens have been arrested in connection with a fire that destroyed the community's only school. (Photo courtesy of photographer Chris Papah)
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Nearly three months after a fire destroyed the only school in a remote northern Ontario First Nation, the Ontario government is stepping in with money to support the students affected.

Four teens have been charged with arson in connection to the fire at the John C. Yesno Education Centre in Eabametoong First Nation – also known as Fort Hope or Eabamet Lake -- on Jan. 25.

The fly-in community, located about 300 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, has a population of 1,600.

The fire left around 300 students from kindergarten to Grade 9 without a school and the rest of the residents without a community hub.

On Wednesday, the Ontario Ministry of Indigenous Affairs announced $540,000 in one-time funding to help those affected.

The community is receiving $250,000 to respond to community needs and support students, "including transition supports for Grade 9 students, emergency supplies, food and mental health and well-being."

MPP Greg Rickford, the Indigenous affairs minister, said in a news release his team "mobilized quickly" and continues to work closely with the First Nation "to identify the community’s needs and help rebuild crucial infrastructure to sustain the community's strength and vitality."

Funding is also being provided to the community by the ministries of children, community and social services as well as tourism, culture and sport for things such as land-based programming and emergency food security needs exacerbated by the fire.

"The Ministry of Education is also providing an additional $240,000 to further support the Keewatin Patricia District School Board’s Rapid Response Northern Schools Team," the news release said.

"This team provides highly trained and experienced staff to mobilize and deploy in local First Nation communities in response to requests made by communities during times of crisis and urgent need."

The ministry is also providing resources to help affected students finish the school year.

"Our rapid response northern schools team is working to support Eabametoong First Nation during this time of crisis. Our priority is to help ensure students have the resources they need for uninterrupted learning during this very difficult time, along with assisting school staff to continue to deliver education, mental health resources and well-being supports," said Stephen Lecce, the Ontario minister of education.

"The importance of maintaining a sense of normalcy as the community — specifically students — recover from the loss of their school is first and foremost."

January's fire was the second blaze to devastate the community in less than a year.

A fire at the community's water treatment plant in July of 2023 prompted evacuations and a declaration of a state of emergency.

"What has happened in our community over the past year with both of the major fires we have experienced has been quite devastating," Chief of Eabametoong First Nation Solomon Atlookan is quoted as saying in the news release.

"Our local infrastructure has been severely impacted, our students no longer have a school, our families no longer have a recreation and gathering place and it will be years until a new one is built."

Atlookan said the underlying mental and social health issues that cause this type of destruction need to be addressed and they won't be solved by just putting up a new building.

"We are working together to support the healing and recovery of our people so that Eabametoong can thrive again," the chief said.

"EFN's Chief and Council are appreciative of the rapid and sincere actions taken by Ontario to work with us through this trying time." 

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