First Nation in Saskatchewan grieves as fire consumes school

“It’s definitely a big loss”, Waterhen Lake First Nation, a community in northwestern Saskatchewan loses its K-12 School after fire destroys building

Waweyekisik Educational Centre,

Fire engulfs the Waweyekisik Educational Centre. Photo supplied.

The people of Waterhen Lake First Nation are mourning the loss of the Waweyekisik Educational Centre, one week before the school was done for the summer and just one day after the community celebrated their Grade 12 graduation ceremony.

“That was probably our last gathering in that building,” Carolyn Bernard, Waterhen Lake First Nation Councilor told APTN News.

According to Bernard, it’s believed the fire started in the roof of the industrial arts shop on Tuesday around 12:30 p.m. The building was evacuated and everyone made it out safely.

The Waterhen Lake First Nation fire crew was assisted by the Meadow Lake Fire Department and other crews from nearby communities  but the fire quickly spread to the rest of the building.

“I got a phone call and I raced to the office and you could just see the smoke. In my mind, I thought they would contain the fire but once it was in the roof it was hard for the fire crews to get at, the fire was burning between the roof and the ceiling,” said Bernard.

On Wednesday, the First Nation advised the community to stay away from the site and security was only allowing emergency personal into the school.

Saskatchewan RCMP is investigating the cause of the fire and questioned the school staff who were inside at the time of the fire.

The increase in water use to put the fire out prompted a boil water advisory. Community members were asked to keep their water usage to a minimum.

Mental health support will also be provided for students and staff who are impacted by the fire.

“A lot of people are really sad about it. It’s just a big devastation because that’s the hub of our community,” said Bernard. “The gym is used as a hall for our big gatherings. We have our wakes, funerals, graduations, community dances, round dances or family gatherings there.

“It’s definitely a big loss for our community. We will continue to support them anyway we can to get through this.”

The Waterhen school was built in 1975 and an addition was constructed in 1986. Photo: supplied.

Bernard said the school is insured and the First Nation is working with its local tribal council to start the process of building mobile education units for students and staff when the return for the fall school session.

The school was first built in 1975 with the elementary area (K-9) constructed first, students started in 1976.

In 1985-86 construction of the secondary school portion was added and the first Grade 12 graduates were in 1986.

Bernard said leadership has been pushing to have a new school built for more than a decade with previous reports of the school dealing with mold and leaking roofs.

Before the fire, the school staff included more than 200 students and more than 40 teaching staff.

“We’ve been lobbying the federal government for a new school for probably the last ten years or so,” said Bernard. “They upgraded us so our application was bumped up but we still didn’t get any funding secured for it… if the new school is expedited it’s still going to take a few years to complete.

“It’s sad too because we had plans to use the old school and gym as a community hall and use it for many more years to come.”

Bernard also points to the need to get a new firetruck for the community to fight future fires, however, the garage that houses the firetruck needs to be updated to meet required provincial standards.

“I just want to thank everyone who came out to help including the Meadow Lake Fire Department, our local firefighters in our community and in the nearby communities, Big Island and Canoe Lake fire crews and to all the health staff and other community members that came out to help, on behalf of our leadership we just want to extend our thanks for being there to help,” said Bernard.

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