No water, no school: How water supply issues are disrupting the learning of Inuit children in Nunavik

Once a week or two, Elom Akpo runs out of the principal’s office at Tarsakallak School in Aupaluk, Quebec, hops into the school truck and roams the village streets looking for a water delivery truck.

It wasn’t part of the job description when Akpo took over as principal last January, but it’s what he does to keep the only school in the village of 233 open. ‘water. If its reservoirs are not filled before they run out, Akpo must send the 60 or so students home.

The tanker drivers “are very generous and very understanding,” Akpo said in a phone interview from the village, located on the western shore of Ungava Bay. “As soon as I mention the school, they immediately change direction and come to help us.”

Until recently, Akpo had managed to avoid school closures under his leadership in Aupaluk, the smallest of 14 communities in Nunavik, the Inuit territory in northern Quebec.

Because finding qualified drivers is also a challenge in the hamlet, Akpo, who arrived in Canada from Togo a decade ago, even offered to be trained and occasionally drive the truck himself. -cistern – an offer that the municipality is considering, according to him.

But two weeks ago, Akpo had no choice but to close school on a Friday afternoon.

“The truck broke down,” he said. “That’s another problem we often have here.”

The school had to close again last Thursday, Akpo said in an email.

Tarsakallak School in Aupaluk was rebuilt five years ago after a fire destroyed the only school in the village in 2014. It has been closed twice in recent weeks due to water shortages.

Damaged or inadequate pumps, filtration or water storage tanks, mechanical breakdowns in water delivery trucks whose drivers are already overwhelmed by demand, and an unforgiving winter climate mean that villages in Nunavik regularly faced with water supply problems.

And when the water runs out in a school – or when the sewage tanks, which also need to be emptied regularly, are full – the school must be closed.

“In some communities, it’s a very big problem,” said Sarah Aloupa, president of Kativik Ilisarniliriniq, the regional school board, in a telephone interview.

Sarah Aloupa, president of the regional school board, Kativik Ilisarniliriniq, said that in some communities in Nunavik, the reliability of sewers and water is “a very big problem”, forcing schools to close every time the reservoirs fail. dry up or the sewage tanks fill up. (Kativik Ilisarniliriniq)

“When we try to demand [an improved water and sewage system]the government doesn’t understand why schools need them,” she said. “It seems like small things for the government, but they are very essential services for normal day-to-day living.”

So far 8 days wasted

The director general of the Kativik commission, Harriet Keleutak, conservatively estimates that water shortages have resulted in the loss of 56 teaching periods of 45 minutes, for a total of eight school days since the start of the 2021-2022 school year.

“These numbers would be higher if nearly half of our establishments had not had to close due to COVID-19” from October to January, she said in an emailed statement. “There may have been other instances of school closures that were not captured in our data management system.”

At least four schools in four different Nunavik communities had to close recently due to lack of water.

In addition to Tarsakallak School in Aupaluk, students were sent home from Nuvviti School in Ivujivik, Iguarsivik School in Puvirnituq and Pigiurvik School in Salluit.

Thomassie Mangiok, who looks after the Nuvviti School in Ivukijik, said bad weather and mechanical breakdowns mean the school runs out of water more often. Ivujivik, the northernmost community in Quebec, has not had a functional wastewater treatment plant for over a year. (Submitted by Thomassie Mangiok)

“When the water runs out, we announce to everyone that we have two periods left before the school closes,” said Thomassie Mangiok, who looks after facilities at Nuvviti School, during the meeting. ‘a telephone interview.

When winter was at its harshest in Ivukijk, Quebec’s northernmost community, they often had to close school, costing students at least a two- to three-week period, Mangiok said.

Ivujivik Water Treatment Plant has been out of service for over a year. A tanker shuttles between the village of 412 and a nearby lake, but fails to keep up with demand. Weather conditions and mechanical breakdowns aggravate the situation.

“We’re never too sure what’s going to break,” Mangiok said with a sigh.

“It’s hard to know that other people in Quebec have access to water. They don’t have to worry about it,” he said. “We don’t even have access to drinking water.”

Negative impact on learning

“We try to keep the school open as long as possible,” said the principal of the Iguarsivik school in Puvirnituq, Hugo Couillard, in a telephone interview.

“Once the toilets become unusable,” he said, he has no choice but to close the school.

Like The Press recently reported, the pipe connecting the Puvirnituq pumping station to the river froze this winter. So here too, trucks have to pump water from the river, one tank at a time, to supply the village, located on the northeast shore of Hudson Bay.

But closures due to lack of water are nothing new, said Couillard, who has worked in Nunavik for nine years.

“Usually it’s not that bad. Trucks don’t have to go that far,” he said. But “at least ten times a year we have to close. Every year.”

He is convinced that these repeated closures have a negative effect on student learning.

“We would need school every day, unfortunately. The academic side is struggling a bit in the north.”

“All the hours we miss, it’s deplorable.”

Water supply problems and mechanical breakdowns of one type or another have recently led to the closure of schools in four different communities in Nunavik, including Aupaluk, Ivujivik, Puvirnituq and Salluit. “All the hours we miss is deplorable,” said Hugo Couillard, principal of Iguarsivik School in Puvirnituq, on the east coast of Hudson Bay. (Nunavik Regional Board of Health and Social Services website)

Just over a quarter of Nunavik students graduate from high school, according to Department of Education data cited in a 2018 report Québec Ombudsman’s report on the quality of education services in the region. This compares to more than three-quarters of students across Quebec.

“Students have missed a lot of school because of COVID,” said Elom Akpo, who worked for two years at Pigiurvik School in Salluit, also plagued by water issues, before arriving in Aupaluk. in January. “So closing again because of the water affects me personally. I feel really bad for the students.”

No solution in sight

The Quebec Ministry of Education refused requests to interview Minister Jean-François Roberge. In response to written questions from CBC News, the department said it was “aware of the situation” and acknowledged that water shortages leading to school closures are a “factor that can impact the student absenteeism.

The Ministry of Education, however, has not provided a plan to remedy the situation. Instead, he said water infrastructure falls under the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. This ministry, in turn, said it had made $120 million available to the Kativik Regional Government (KRG), which handles municipal services in Nunavik.

This financial assistance program should allow the KRG and the northern villages to “implement their municipal infrastructure projects”, such as the improvement of pumping and water treatment stations and tanker trucks, indicates MMAH in a recent email.

KRG declined interview requests and did not respond to written questions, instead directing CBC to the mayors of each community. “ARK does not deal directly with school closures due to water shortages,” he said in an email.

“The Quebec government should come see us more, because they say they serve us,” said Aloupa, president of the Kativik School Board. “You can’t know the people you serve well if you don’t communicate with them.”