A devastating fire that broke out last week in the only school of Eabametoong First Nation, a remote community in northwestern Ontario, has left hundreds of students without a place to learn. Four teenagers have been arrested and charged in connection with the arson that destroyed the John C. Yesno Education Centre, which served students from junior kindergarten to Grade 9.
Community in shock and grief
The fire started around 7:10 a.m. on Thursday, January 25, 2024, and quickly engulfed the school building. No one was injured in the blaze, but the school was reduced to ashes. The community of about 1,600 people, located 360 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, is in shock and grief over the loss of their school, which was a safe haven and a source of pride for many.
Chief Solomon Atlookan and the band council issued a statement saying that they are “devastated by the loss of our school, which will deprive approximately 299 students from junior kindergarten to Grade 9 of an education.” They also thanked the firefighters, police, and other emergency responders who tried to save the school and ensure the safety of the community.
Four teens face multiple charges
The Nishnawbe Aski Police Service (NAPS) announced on Monday, January 29, 2024, that four teenagers have been charged in relation to the fire. The suspects are three boys aged 13, 14, and 17, and a 13-year-old girl. They are each facing multiple charges, including arson with disregard for human life, arson with damage to property, mischief over $5,000, and possession of incendiary material. The 17-year-old is also charged with possession of break-in instruments and assaulting a peace officer.
None of the teens can be identified due to their age. They were taken into custody and are set to appear in court on Tuesday, January 30, 2024. The investigation is ongoing, according to the NAPS.
Efforts to restore education and rebuild school
The chief and council said that they are working with various provincial, federal, and Indigenous organizations to set up virtual education so that the students can continue learning. They also expressed their hope and determination to rebuild the school as soon as possible.
A fundraiser page, called “Achieving the Dream Through Education,” has been set up by Matawa First Nations Management through Canada Helps to assist the community in rebuilding their school. The page has been shared on social media by a number of First Nations leaders and groups, such as the Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority.
The page says: “On Jan. 25, 2024, Eabametoong First Nation experienced the devastating loss of their school from a raging fire. Their school was the safe haven for most of the youth and children. The students have seen all of their beloved school supplies, cultural and land-based supplies, and years of memories burn.”
This is the second arson the community has faced in under a year. In July 2023, a fire at the water treatment plant forced a community evacuation, which lasted about three weeks.