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With 3 students, a New Brunswick island school faces an uncertain future

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When Barry Russell attended White Head Elementary School in the 1950s, he had about 20 classmates to play with on  the field.

“At recess you’d go outside and play when the weather was good,” he said. “We played ball alongside the school.”  

But today, with an enrolment of just three, the tiny island school has more swings than students. The playground is quiet, a sign of the times on White Head Island.

The remote fishing community in the Bay of Fundy is only about six square kilometres in size, and one of the hardest places to reach in the province. Located off the southeastern tip of Grand Manan, it takes two ferry rides to reach the island from mainland New Brunswick. 

A little more than 100 people call White Head home and its dwindling school is the smallest in the province. With enrolment dropping into the single digits, it faces an uncertain future. 

Once-thriving fishery

Some residents can recall a time when nearly 500 people lived on the island.

Duane Banks is a third-generation White Head Islander. His grandparents relocated from Nova Scotia in the early 1900s to be close to prosperous fishing grounds.

The waters at the time were teeming with scallops, lobster, pollock, cod, herring and halibut. 

“The fishing grounds were so rich here,” he said. “Back then the fish used to school right out of water — it was unbelievable.”

Duane Banks is a third-generation resident of White Head Island. (Alexandre Silberman/CBC)

The shores of White Head were surrounded by fish plants, lobster pounds and seafood operations. Fishing is still the main way to earn a living, but the industry is mostly reduced to lobster.

Banks, now 50, said it was a special place to grow up, with plenty of work, many kids around and “no shortage” of things to do.

“It was nice. It was a close-knit community, almost like a big family.”

‘So cold we’d go home’

Russell, 73, is a retired lobster fisherman and also a third-generation islander. His grandmother moved from the Fredericton area for a teaching job, married and never left.

When Russell attended the elementary school, it was a wooden, two-storey building, kept warm — or as best as possible — with an oil space heater. 

In those early years, there was no insulation and no indoor plumbing. 

“We sat at our desk with our jackets on, our ski pants, our boots, our mittens,” he said. “And then when you get just so cold, we’d go home.”

The remote fishing community of White Head Island a ferry ride away from the southeastern tip of Grand Manan. (Alexandre Silberman/CBC)

After completing Grade 6, Russell and his classmates moved on to high school on Grand Manan. There was no car ferry in those years, so a lobster boat — captained by his grandfather — brought the kids across on their way to class.

“We went to school in all kinds of weather,” Russell said. “Woke up in the morning, listened, hoped it was blowing hard so you didn’t have to go.”

Each time a storm would start to roll in, the high school announced early dismissals for White Head students, giving them time to reach home before the sea became too rough. 

Information Morning – Saint John7:46White Head Island

White Head Island might be one of the hardest places to reach in the province. The small fishing community set off the coast of Grand Manan is two ferry rides away from the mainland. The once-thriving island is now facing a dwindling population. Alexandre Silberman travelled to the remote island and brings us this story. 7:46

The ferry rides weren’t always comfortable. On windy days the boat would rock and water would fly over the deck. 

Banks lived close enough to the wharf that he could watch it pull into the harbour and run over to catch it at the last minute. 

“If you didn’t learn much at school you learned on the ferry,” he said. “That was a great spot for doing homework as well because it would give you a half an hour ride.”

White Head Island is connected to Grand Manan by a 25-minute ferry ride. (Alexandre Silberman/CBC)

All grades in one room

The current White Head Elementary School is a small building with blue metal siding, set back on a hill overlooking the ocean.

It’s similar to a modern version of the one-room schoolhouse, with two classroom areas divided by a library space in the middle. 

The teacher and three students now at the school could not be interviewed.

Wesley Silliker is the principal of both the Grand Manan Community School and White Head Elementary. He said the small school offers a special experience that is hard to find these days.

“You grow up with your classmates, I think that’s something that you would miss out on in a bigger school,” Silliker said. “There’s a certain beauty to it that you wouldn’t get in other places.”

The school began to offer kindergarten in the early 1990s, further expanding the age range in the room.

With just three children enrolled this fall, White Head Elementary School has more swings than students. (Alexandre Silberman/CBC)

When Banks was a student, he said, it was “kind of intimidating” at first to be in the same room as classmates from Grades 1 to 6.

“You got to experience a little bit of everything, not just people your own age — you were also right there with people six years older than you,” he said.

Banks’s two children also attended the school. His daughter moved away to Saint John, where she works as a nurse, and his 19-year-old son still lives on the island and fishes with him.

Unique teaching challenge

Melanie Colwell was Banks’s teacher. Starting out in 1973, she taught every grade and later worked as a supply teacher and education assistant. 

“Eventually when numbers got small enough, all the grades were in one classroom and you just circled around the room as if you were teaching groups of children,” she said.

During Colwell’s time working at the school, enrolment reached as high as 21 students. But in her final year, there were just seven students and there was no one in Grade 1.

Colwell, 67, said the combined grades allowed students to excel and learn quickly. When younger students finished assignments, they would listen to lessons for the older grades.

Faced with declining enrolment, the Anglophone South School District moved older grades from White Head Elementary to Grand Manan in recent years. (Alexandre Silberman/CBC)

When Stephanie Fitzsimmons was at the school between 2003 and 2010, she was one of two teachers in the building along with an education assistant for 8 to 10 students.

Fitzsimmons lived on Grand Manan and would take the ferry to work each day. When it stopped running because of a mechanical problem, residents found a ride home for her in a fishing boat.

“The community was really supportive,” she said. “If there was anything we ever needed they would kick in and fundraise for it.”

Having the same students for many years led to strong connections. 

“You kind of got to be family with them.”

‘I don’t see any future’

White Head Island has lost services in recent years.

The J.F. Morris and Son General Store was the meeting place of the community and sold everything from gas and groceries, to fresh meat and hardware supplies. It closed a few years ago. 

With the general store gone, the elementary school is the centre of the community, hosting Christmas concerts and annual picnics.

It was a big loss for White Head Island residents when the only general store and gas station closed a few years ago. It was located in the green building on the left. (Alexandre Silberman/CBC)

It’s not the most convenient life. Buying groceries, seeing a doctor, or getting gas all require a ferry ride to Grand Manan. But to islanders — it is home. 

“It’s peaceful, it’s beautiful here,” Colwell said. “You can hike, you can swim, you can do a lot of different things, kayak boat, go whale watching — things that you don’t normally get to do on the mainland.”

Our way of life may disappear.– Resident Duane Banks

White Head still has a small post office, but there are concerns it could be turned into mailboxes. Some fear the school could be next — a devastating blow to the island’s future.

“I don’t see any future for it really because there’s no new kids coming, no new families coming,” Banks said. “It’s sad really, it’s a part of the culture here.”

Protected by geography

Faced with declining enrolment, the Anglophone South School District moved older grades to Grand Manan in recent years after receiving permission from parents. 

Now the school only offers kindergarten to Grade 4. But the island’s geography might protect it in the short term.

Rob Fowler, the chair of the District Education Council, said it’s challenging to speculate what might happen if enrolment drops lower or there are no more kids coming up. 

With municipal elections postponed, the council is in a transition phase, and there are no immediate plans that could impact the school. 

“If they were just down the street from another school it’d be a no brainer,” Fowler said. “But you take that ferry ride into consideration and the age of the children — that’s not anything anybody wants to get into.”

Barry Russell said he is keeping his fingers crossed the island’s school stays open. (Alexandre Silberman/CBC)

Russell, a lifelong resident, agreed.

“We’re keeping our fingers crossed, I think everybody on the island,” he said. “I would hate to see it close.”

At his kitchen table, Banks looks out at the ferry landing and shuttered general store. The way of life he once knew may never be the same. 

“To me, it feels like it’s going to be like it was on Wood Island, eventually the government stepped in and moved everybody off,” he said.

“When you think about it, there’s only a hundred people here. It costs the government a lot of money to maintain roads and stuff like that. Our way of life may disappear.”

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CBU to honour Donald Marshall Jr. with new research centre

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A new research institute planned for Cape Breton University will honour the legacy of Donald Marshall Jr., who fought for the Indigenous right to fish for a moderate livelihood.

The Mi’kmaw man’s name has been invoked in recent weeks by Indigenous fishermen in southwest Nova Scotia who have launched self-regulated lobster fisheries. 

“I think it’s very timely in terms of the need for knowledge sharing, for advocacy and for action,” said Janice Tulk, a senior researcher in the university’s development department. 

The idea for the institute has been in the works for a couple of years, sparked by one of the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which emphasized the need for education about Indigenous law and Indigenous rights.

Donald Marshall Jr. addresses a crowd in Sydney, N.S., after leading a peaceful protest over Indigenous fishing rights, on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2000. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

“We started thinking about what could we do at Cape Breton University that would respond to that call,” said Tulk, whose areas of expertise include Mi’kmaw history and culture, as well as Indigenous economic reconciliation.

Tulk said the university has partnered with Cape Breton’s Mi’kmaw communities over the past 40 years to provide higher education in a variety of fields, with the creation of Mi’kmaw studies programs, Mi’kmaw science programs and more recently, Indigenous business and mentorship programs. The university saw the research institute as a next opportunity, said Tulk.

‘I think it’s amazing’

Cape Breton University will work with members of the Marshall family over the coming months to solidify the vision for the institute.

“I think it’s amazing,” said Crystal Bernard, Donald Marshall Jr.’s daughter.

“We’re so humbled and honoured that they would do this for him, in his name. And I know he would be very proud, as well.”

The idea was made public Monday as the university unveiled plans for a proposed, $80-million Centre for Discovery and Innovation. The project has yet to receive funding, but should it go ahead, it will house the Marshall Institute.

“We need a space where community collaboration can occur,” said Tulk, noting the institute will proceed with or without the new building.

Janice Tulk’s expertise includes Mi’kmaw history and culture, as well as Indigenous tourism development and economic reconciliation. (cbu.ca)

That collaboration will involve university researchers, faculty members and students, as well as community members and organizations such as the Bras d’Or Lakes Collaborative Environmental Planning Initiative and the Unama’ki Institute of Natural Resources, as well as various levels of government.

“I think we’re going to have some really valuable conversations that will advance our understanding of environmental justice and Indigenous approaches to climate change, and hopefully start to make some progress on those things through those dialogues, through advocacy, through policy change,” said Tulk.

Asked what role the institute might play in situations such as the current unrest over the Indigenous moderate livelihood fishery in Nova Scotia, Tulk said it would serve to help educate people about treaties and Indigenous rights.

“I would imagine that there would be advocacy as well,” said Tulk. “Certainly the institute could play a role in bringing stakeholders together to have honest conversations and collaboratively come up with solutions.”

Bernard said she believes her father would be disappointed by the ongoing situation in southwest Nova Scotia.

“I think it would be very upsetting to him that we’re having to go through this again,” she said.

“On the other hand, I think he’d be on the front lines, fighting with our people, trying to get people to understand that the treaty rights are not up for debate.”

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Calgary Catholic school increases safety precautions after district’s ‘explosion’ of COVID-19 cases

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Just last week, the number of positive COVID-19 cases in the Calgary Catholic School District was in the low twenties. But over the weekend, there was an “explosion of cases,” which has led some schools to take drastic steps to prevent the spread of the virus.

Chief superintendent Bryan Szumlas says there are now 64 students and six teachers within the district who have active cases of COVID-19.

“Over the weekend, we saw an explosion of cases.… This is like a three times increase in the last five days. I believe this is what we’re seeing now as a result of the gatherings that happened over the Thanksgiving long weekend,” he said. “Within Calgary Catholic, we have 118 schools, and 35 of our schools right now are dealing with active cases of COVID-19.”

Szumlas said dealing with COVID-19 in schools is an always evolving situation.

“After a 14-day period, some of these schools come off the list where others go on the list. Since the beginning of the school year, it has been a roller-coaster of ups and downs,” he said.  “Right now, we are at a low point and we’re asking all of our parents and our students to please be vigilant and to continue to practise our health measures as we go forward.”

Szumlas said there were roughly 1,000 students in isolation last week, but since then that number has more than doubled, and there are now about 2,400 students and staff who are in self-isolation.  

“Now, that number may seem fairly large, but to put it in perspective, our school district has just over 56,000 students. So that’s roughly 3.5 to four per cent of our total population,” he said.

“Of course, it worries me, but I have a lot of faith that working together with our communities, that this is a little blip right now and we can, if we work together, we can change that curve and bring it down, if we’re all working together and continuing to practise our health measures.”

The recent surge in cases at Calgary Catholic has lead some schools like St. Francis High School to take a more severe approach to curbing cases within the school population. 

In a letter home to St. Francis parents on Monday, the principal announced that five families had received confirmation of a student testing positive for COVID-19, and thus 300 students and 12 staff were in isolation.

As a result of the rise in cases, St. Francis will end its fall athletic program.

“This is necessary to reduce staff and students potentially needing to self-isolate because of a positive COVID-19 case. The start of our winter athletic season will also be postponed until we see a drop in positive cases at Saint Francis,” wrote principal Mark Berger.

The school has also chosen to make final exams “write to improve” only (meaning a lower grade can’t bring down the student’s overall mark).

Szumlas said he supports these moves. 

“I do support what this principal and the school is doing. This is innovative, collaborative. They’re informing their parents. We stand behind this and it is part of the assessment practices,” he said. 

Berger’s letter also appealed to parents to not let teens gather on weekends.

“Some of the positive cases reported were associated with weekend student gatherings. We ask families to consider the potential negative impacts of group gatherings on our school community,” said Berger.

“We are asking parents to discuss with their children the importance of social distancing, avoiding large gatherings and the sharing of food and beverages.”

The Calgary Board of Education, since the beginning of the school year, has had 140 positive cases and 80-plus schools affected by them. 

In October, the CBE said 3,300 students and 325 staff members had been impacted by mandatory isolations. 

Of those attending CBE’s in-person learning, five per cent of students and 3.5 per cent of staff have been affected by required quaranties since September.

“To date, we have had six cases of suspected in-school transmission,” said CBE superintendent of school improvement, Joanne Pittman.

“What I would also say, though, is that even with that suspected in-school transmission, individuals who may have then tested positive have already been in quarantine, and as a result, additional actions were not required because of the safety precautions already put into place. “

CBE board chair Marilyn Dennis said parents should be encouraged by these numbers. 

“The fact that we have only 0.1 per cent of in-person students and .06 per cent of staff that have been identified with a positive case, I would think that would be very encouraging for families,” she said. 

“The strength of it is, No. 1, that we have strong compliance due to the protocols we put in place [and], No. 2, that we have been thorough in our response. We think we can be proud of the work that we’re doing in our schools to try and keep our communities healthy.”

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Corrections watchdog urges moratorium on doctor-assisted deaths in Canadian prisons – Kamloops This Week

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