By Athena Bonneau, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
While many children are returning to classrooms this week in B.C., students at nk̓maplqs iʔ snm̓am̓ay̓aʔtn iʔ k̓l sqilxʷtə — the Okanagan Indian Band (OKIB) Cultural Immersion School — won’t start their school year until Sept. 22.
Because of the White Rock Lake wildfire sweeping through syilx territory, renovations planned for the school had to be postponed from August until September.
“The fires indirectly impacted the start of our school year,” says Gareth Jones, the school’s director of education, language and culture.
“A two-week delay can be made up later in the school year by our excellent teachers and staff,” he adds.
Since the OKIB chief and council announced a State of Local Emergency and issued evacuation orders at the beginning of August, many families living on band land were displaced from their homes.
“We had about 50 children living up Silver Star, some in Osoyoos, Kelowna and Lake Country at different hotels and RV parks,” Jones tells IndigiNews.
According to an information bulletin shared by the BC Wildfire Service on Sept. 2, “The White Rock Lake wildfire is now considered Being Held. The wildfire is not likely to spread beyond determined containment lines due to the suppression carried out by BC Wildfire Service.”
On Sept 7, the OKIB chief and council lifted all evacuation orders and alerts within Okanagan Indian Reserve No.1 related to the White Rock Lake fire.
While nk̓maplqs iʔ snm̓am̓ay̓aʔtn iʔ k̓l sqilxʷtə — which translates from syilx to English as Head of the lake place of learning our sqilxw ways — was not touched by the wildfire, the grounds need cleaning up, says Jones.
He says staff is working on safely cleaning up fire ash and debris.
“With some pressure washing and yard clean-up, the school will be back to its old self,” Jones tells IndigNews.
“I’m trying to fix things and trying to find the best alternative for people to have a good start to the school year.”
Now with the evacuation order lifted, Jones says the OKIB can begin installing two new modular classrooms, as they’d planned to do over the summer.
“It will take 7-10 days to complete the installation and it would be too dangerous to have the children attend school on a construction site,” says Jones.
“As far as I know all evacuees have returned home,” says Jones.
If the school finds out in coming days that some students on OKIB land are still unable to return to their home due to fire damage, the band will implement a transportation plan for students and parents who are living off-reserve due to the fire, says Jones.
Arrangements would also be made for children to be picked up and dropped off by bus, and “for members that have to drive their children to school” there would be mileage reimbursement.
The tentative start date for students at nk̓maplqs iʔ snm̓am̓ay̓aʔtn iʔ k̓l sqilxʷtə is September 22. However, Jones says this date is subject to change.
“There are a lot of variables at play here right now in terms of getting things open and getting things going, and we really don’t know what we’re walking into,” he says.
“I pushed back the start dates a little bit just to be safe, and if we can reopen the school earlier, that would be even better … We will update parents as much as we can.”
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