Tuesday, July 24, 2012
Posted by Way Way Up at 22:04
Friday, July 20, 2012
I admit I'm still trying to wrap my head around the bureaucratic goofiness of it all, so bear with me. Much of the subject of the post is actually explained in the letter below that I wrote a couple weeks ago, but to further flesh out the story... When I bought my house here two years ago it was with the relief that I wouldn't have nearly the amount of housing issues I had was then experiencing while employed by a certain northern Alberta school board.....that would be Northland School Division 61. Well, I certainly did have an "unparalleled wilderness experience" as they mention on their home page, just not quite the way I would have imagined. Anyhow, I digress. Anyhow, the house had certain issues (just read on). Serious ones. Ones that should have been addressed but weren't. In the fall of 2009, I emailed then superintendent Dr. de Paola explaining my concerns. No response. My principal was informed and while we had some sympathy (which came across as rather patronizing I felt), nothing seemed to get done. Certainly, the school board's maintenance department were aware of the issues as I had every possible phone number I could find for them attached to the fridge. Needless to say I was not impressed. In April 2010, I had had enough, I packed up and moved an hour north to Fort McMurray. While I tried to follow up on the housing issue, I got busy. It was my first time living in a city in a dozen years so there were many adjustments. I made mistakes. Life got in the way. Still, the issue did nag at me. How is it possible for people to get away with this kind of incompetence? I mean, I understand they are basically bureaucrats and as such don't live in the same world or occupy the same head space as most normal people. But the fact they still get paid (with public money) to bumble along, burned me. The superintendent that was with Northland has since moved on but I decided late last month to take one more kick at the can. I emailed the new superintendent, that would be Dr. Donna Barrett (phone number 780-624-2060 x6102), and laid out my concerns. Funny how both the former and current superintendent are both "Doctors". Apparently two people with Ph.D's are not enough to respond timely to a simple email. (And people like this teach your kids.) Anyhow, here is the email I sent dated June 30, 2012. Dear Ms. Barrett, I am writing regarding my concern with the board-supplied housing in your school board as I have some concerns I would like to see explained or at least acknowledged. I realize that these events took place prior to you taking over as Superintendent, however, while I have tried to bring them to the attention of Northland, I have received no response or acknowledgement. In August 2009 I moved with my fiancee and 3 children to Janvier and moved into board-supplied housing (205 Northland Dr. Janvier, AB) During my short time in Janvier we experienced no end of issues with the house. The most important of which was the broken sewage system which resulted in raw sewage leaking from the pipes into our basement. Perhaps Northland thinks it is acceptable for a family of 5 to live in these conditions but I certainly don't. This was of great concern because not only did the children have their play area down there but our water pump was also a problem with the result that for a period of 6 weeks we had no water at our house. I had to resort to filling jerry cans at the school for water and we had to pick up a water cooler in Fort McMurray. This was of great concern as our youngest was only 7 months old at the time and obviously still in diapers. We had to resort to using either a neighbor's washer and dryer for laundry rather than our own and had to bathe our 7 month month old in a sink at the school which I find completely ridiculous. While the problem was eventually fixed, I think waiting over a month is a bit extreme. I brought my concerns to my principal at the time, John Proctor, but getting any sort of action or guidance out of this incompetent was impossible. I phoned maintenance countless times and could either never reach them or was told the problem was being looked into. I also emailed then Superintendent Dr. de Paola directly about this issue and never received a response or even acknowledgement of the email. Indeed, during my first week in Janvier, a colleague told me the housing unit had sat vacant for a couple years and she thought it had been condemned. She told me further that at some point the basement had flooded and indeed a watermark was clearly visible on the furnace. My fiancee strongly suspected mold in the basement as a result. The children, whose health had always been excellent seemed to suffer a lot of headaches and nose bleeds after playing in the basement. When my fiancee's mother visited that winter from Ontario we had her set up in the basement on our sectional couch and after a couple of nights she complained regularly of headaches and problems breathing. In February 2010, while at a conference in Edmonton, I received a frantic email and phone call from my fiancee telling me the furnace wasn't working and she was unable to get hold of maintenance or my principal. Fortunately, a friend of my mine was able to use a contact in Fort McMurray to help set up temporary accommodations for them there at his own personal expense. In addition, the dryer also died on us and needed to be replaced and the freezer also went resulting in the spoiling of a good deal of food. All this begs the following questions...Is housing regularly inspected by Northland School Division? Why would the school board provide a house for a family so poorly maintained that I would hesitate to keep a dog in it? When I brought my concerns with the house forward , why were they so slowly addressed? Is Northland so desperate to fill teaching positions that they will put them in any structure so long as it has four walls and a roof? I am writing to you as a last resort, as I am tired of this issue. It has been discussed a great deal in my family and they are concerned about the conditions we experienced there. Why does Ms. Willier [the current assistant superintendent, phone 780-624-2060 x6158] not acknowledge there is a problem here as she was with the board during my time there? Is she incompetent or does she simply not care? While she may want to throw me under the bus, I must firmly draw the line where my family's health and welfare are involved. Your maintenance logs for the property, if indeed they even exist, will clearly show there were many issues with this property. Please, acknowledge there is an issue here an answer some basic questions for me, I beg of you. I'm at the end of my patience with this issue. Frankly, if I don't get some actions on this matter, I have no qualms with posting photos I've taken on my blog. I'm not asking to rebuild a house from the ground up but rather some acknowledgement that a problem exists, that action wasn't taken and that something will actually be done about it so that another individual, couple or young family does not have to suffer through the nightmare we certainly did while working for your school board. Regards, Darcy Steele A couple days went by and I got no response. Then a week. Well, it's summer I figured. I'm sure she was busy with interviews trying fill the positions vacated by fleeing teachers. (Northlands has one of the highest staff turn over rates in the province.) Not to be put off, I emailed the woman again with a gentle reminder, dated July 11. I was pretty steamed but somehow kept it civil. Dear Ms. Barrett, Again, I respectfully submit my last email correspondence to you in hopes that it may have been missed due to a heavy workload. I eagerly await your response. Regards, Darcy Steele And finally success!! A mere three days later, on Saturday, July 14, I got a response back. Wow! And on a Saturday too!....bureaucrats work weekends?! Perhaps there's hope after all.....but no. After a mere 2 and a half years of delays, I received the following one-sentence response....from an IPhone... I have noted your concerns and reviewed them with our housing department. Wow! Thanks. Now, its my experience that such bureaucrats are shy creatures. They loathe the limelight and would much prefer the familiar environs of their offices than the bump and grind of reality. However, I have found if you speak persistently in slow, simple language, it is possible to coax them out. With this in mind, I emailed back a very easy to understand response.... And? Now, I'm hoping to get more than a one-sentence response. Because I'm sure it would be uber-embarrassing for Northlands to have the photos I am in possession of wind up on a lawyers desk or in the media.
Posted by Way Way Up at 01:23
Wednesday, October 06, 2010
By now I'm sure it's painfully obvious that keeping up with this blog has become increasingly difficult do to time constraints and increasing family obligations. During the time of this blog, and indeed the entire time (6 years) I resided in Nunavut, I was blessed with many experiences, trials and tribulations. I was fortunate to see and experience a part of Canada that few people are able to. By Nunavut standards I am now a southerner of sorts, here in Fort McMurray, Alberta enjoying our first house with a loving fiancee and a growing (and busy) family.
I've said a lot and have had a lot said in return on this blog in the form of the many comments I've received over the years. I was pleasantly surprised to see that some posts, written as much as two years ago, still generate commentary. Who knew? I've also had the odd interview and published article along the way.
In six years, I lived in a couple different communities and saw a good deal of Baffin Island, or at least as much as is possible to see from a plane, a snowmobile or a pair of size 10 Sorels. I witnessed some fantastic views, ate some unique foods, went on the odd rant, jumped in the ocean and struck gold.
To finish off I'd like to thank and wish best wishes to everyone I encountered along my Nunavut journey. It was a fantastic 6 years of my life encompassing over half my professional career. I recall my first day, back in July 2003 as my jet was landing in Iqaluit. The aircraft had to declare a missed approach as circle around again for a second landing attempt. A someone who had flown quite a bit in many types of aircraft and flying conditions, I was a little taken aback. I remember asking myself just what I thought I was getting into. Six plus years years later, I can answer that question: I was about to embark on a most wonderful adventure full of unique and wonderful people....an experience I have never regretted, and something I always look back upon with a good deal of pride.
Thursday, August 19, 2010
Anyone whose followed this blog for any length of time will know that I whole-heartedly welcome this news regarding a proposed EU seal ban. Of course they will say that it isn't directed specifically at Inuit but at the end of the day a ban would definitely affect them. I'm sure this news has brought some gritting of teeth and hand ringing to some people, but then I see stories of some Europeans deliberately running with bulls and well...if your silly enough to do that I suppose a ban somehow makes some sort of sense.....
Seeing wasps in the High Arctic caught my attention though its something I've been aware of for the past 2 or 3 years, having seen them myself as well as some interesting pictures of them on a couple other northern blobs I frequent.
I also note with interest the federal government's apology for the forced relocation of Inuit families back in the 1950's. For me this wasn't just something I read about in history books. I got some sense of it all from my time spent in Arctic Bay, one of the communities affected by this bureaucratic decision. For anyone interested in more information, I highly recommend the book Tammarniit (Mistakes).
Sunday, August 15, 2010
While I had a few close encounters with polar bears when I lived in Nunavut, I have to admit none of the were quite like this. It bears pointing out(sorry for the pun)that generally bears will take great pains to avoid human contact and that most encounters occur when we as humans encroach on their territory. The only serious attack I heard about during the time I lived up there occurred in 2003 when an Inuk guide was attacked in his tent at night while leading a hunting expedition. The man did survive, but needed a couple hundred stitches and staples to close to wounds to his scalp.
I recall coming across a black bear in Fort Smith 10 years ago, but fortunately for me, the bear showed much more interest in the berries it was eating than in me and I was able to beat a hasty retreat with nothing more than an elevated heart rate and a good northern tale.
While polar bears make for iconic northern photos, you always have to use your head. It's good to hear this encounter turned out safely for both human and bear.
Saturday, August 14, 2010
Its been quite a while since I've added a new blog to the sidebar. Courtesy of Bonnieupnorth (another Alberta/Nunavut blog by the way), I give you The Amazing Tails of Jasper and Jack, Alaskan bloggers, who if I've got it correctly are friends of Bonnie's daughter.
While I have to admit I'm not as familiar with Alaskan blogs as the ones from Canada's 3 northern territories, I do have to admit a certain captivation with the state. It is high up on my list of places to see and I've bounced the idea of taking an Alaskan cruise of my fiancee. And to my delight, she is just as enthusiastic about it as I am. At any rate, be sure to check out this new Alaskan addition to the sidebar if you have the opportunity.
Thursday, July 29, 2010
I've been having a pretty busy summer and haven't been following much in the way of news as much as I usually would. News about the recent discovery of the HMS Investigator has caught my attention, history buff and northern enthusiast that I am. There's more happening in our Arctic than most people would realize from reading the mainstream media. It's refreshing to see a story that isn't about social or government issues or Parliamentary rows over arctic sovereignty issues.
Posted by Way Way Up at 19:30
Tuesday, July 13, 2010
This is actually a post I had been playing around with in my head for some time now but never seemed to find the time to put down on paper, or the screen as it were. Having followed the Nunavut blogging scene from its infancy 5 years ago up to now, I've seen a lot of changes as people have come and gone or even moved to different communities within the territory. Perhaps the most entertaining blog I've followed was Jen of Nunavut. If you're not familiar with it, I highly recommend stopping by for the photography and wit. Jen has since moved on to Ontario but still writes warmly about Nunavut on her new blog. Anyhow, I was reminded about getting on about doing this post after seeing the first two photos of this post here as well as reading up on Jaime's blog as she prepares for her move south. And, since I'm doing up more links than a German sausage I highly recommend this very thorough and well-written post if you're curious about making the move up to Nunavut.
Thinking back now to July 21, 2003, when I first moved to Nunavut I find it funny that at the time I spent a great deal of time pondering all the changes and adjustments I would have to make. (I had made my career to this point in several small northern communities across Canada, but Nunavut was something else entirely.) What I never really thought about was all the changes and adjustments I would have to make once I left Nunavut. Perhaps this is understandable after all since when I landed in Iqaluit on that fateful July day I had no idea I would spend the next 6 years of my life on Baffin Island. At the time, I was thinking within the confines of a 2-year time frame.
Perhaps changes are pretty obvious of course like climate and lack of 24-daylight (and darkness) so I don't need to elaborate. Other things might come across as a bit strange and may only be fully understood by someone who has spent a portion of their life north of that magical line known as the Arctic Circle. So here, in no particular order are some of the things I've had to adjust to over the past year.
1)Anonymity - Sometimes I like this and sometimes I don't. I don't really pay much attention to this anymore but initially I found it a bit strange that I could spend the better part of a day downtown or in some of the other civic places where people tend to gather and (aside from my family) not recognize or be acknowledged by a single person.
2)Cell phones - Yes, I'll admit straight off that I can be a bit of a Luddite. Cell phones confused the hell out of me at first. I only got one because my fiancee and I had a heck of a time getting our land line set up when we moved to northern Alberta and needed a phone of some sort to help us out in the interim. I suppose I can be forgiven a little since while I lived in Nunavut, there was no cell phone service available outside of the capital of Iqaluit. AND I know for a fact that I annoyed the heck out of my fiancee with all my cell phone questions and the pushing of wrong buttons. But I started sending my own text messages a couple weeks ago and for those who know my level of technology skills, that's real progress.
3)Access to goods and services - Fort McMurray isn't Edmonton when it comes to selection and shopping options but it is a significant change from living in places with only two stores. I now live within walking distance of 2 major grocery stores, 3 gas stations, 3 liquor stores, 4 schools and an insane number of dentist offices. As a result of all this, I've had to re-learn how to bargain shop....and this leads nicely into the next item....
4)Re-learning about money - Okay maybe not totally re-learning but as I mentioned earlier I became accustomed to dealing with 2 stores, though occasionally I did order online. Having accepted high prices as normal everyday thing, I had to be careful moving to a community of 80,000. Prices here are a tad high by Alberta standards but from my perspective there were many times I thought I was getting a great deal when I really wasn't. Thankfully I have my wonderful fiancee to help me out with this.
5)Busy busy - This place is on the go 24/7. You know you've been ruralized when you secretly congratulate yourself on successfully crossing 6 lanes of Fort McMurray traffic without getting squashed one of those big Diversified buses that are seemingly everywhere transporting people to and from all the big oil sands projects. Speaking of buses....
6) Negotiating bus routes - Lisa does the driving and I last dealt with city buses while attending university. Windsor, Ontario is good in that much of downtown and commercial areas are laid out in a grid system. Here, its a bit more confusing with a lot of twisty roads and routes that wrap around each other, like an unruly ball of yarn. A couple of times I've misread route maps but I've managed to catch my mistakes before winding up too far from my intended destination.
7) You lived where?! - Isn't so much of an adjustment as an observation. I always get a kick out of people when I try to describe to them where I used to live. At times, this has led to a bit of "He-man" complex on my part. We hit a patch of -40C weather last December and I'm sure I smile smugly at a few people who commented about how cold the weather felt to them. "Oh, -40 is nothing. Trust me. This one time in Nunavut....."
Wednesday, June 30, 2010
I know I'm a little late off the draw with this but as a former Windsorite I have to wish a hearty congratulations to the Windsor Spitfires on their back-to-back Memorial Cup wins (can you say DYNASTY?!) It's been a few years since I've been back to the Windsor area and this story makes me wish I was there for tomorrow's Canada Day parade (though I'm sure it will be a good show here in Fort McMurray).
The Stanley Cup and the Memorial Cup together for the first time in the same parade is pretty cool you have to admit. Plus, it wasn't won by Detroit for a nice change. (I have to admit I never really liked the team, plus, all the media coverage coming from across the Detroit River did little to endear me to them.) I also like that Chicago coach (and former Windsor Spitfire coach) Joel Quenneville is a Windsor boy and that he happens to share his surname with a certain lovely fiancee of mine.
Posted by Way Way Up at 17:31
Monday, June 28, 2010
On a more uplifting note, it is with a great amount of pride that I congratulate Robbie Qammanirq on his recent graduation from Trent University. I never had the opportunity to meet Robbie while I lived in Arctic Bay but being such a small place I met plenty family members and friends and certainly heard much about the young man and the challenges he had to overcome. Coming from such a small place and adjusting to life in a large urban centre is no small barrier to overcome. Speaking from my own experience, after spending a decade in several small northern Canadian communities, adjusting to a new life in a city of 80, 000+ was trying at times. I can only imagine what it would be like for someone who has spent their entire life in a small place.
And I'm sure there will be plenty of idiots out there who will seize on this event simply to bash the North, education policy, the fact their underwear is on too tight and what have you. The simple truth is that relocating 2000 miles to attain a university degree is damn hard and Robbie should be commended for his grit and determination.
For more media coverage you can find the Nunatsiaq News article here and a story from CHEX Newswatch here. A big thank you to Nunavut MLA Ron Elliott and fellow Alberta/Nunavut blogger Bonnieupnorth for bringing this story to my attention.
Friday, May 28, 2010
This recent news item on the state of water on Aboriginal reserves caught my attention because I can certainly relate to it. I once lived in a northern Manitoba community that was on a "boil water" for much of the time I was there. There are times (particularly in the spring) where I know some communities will issue an advisory simply because of spring run off, a common thing that usually doesn't last all that long. Fort Smith is an examply of this and if I recall correctly the advisory lasted for perhaps a week. No big deal.
The situation I faced in northern Manitoba was much different. The water problems were brought on primarily due to changed water levels in the lake resulting from damming projects courtesy of Manitoba Hydro and an ageing water plant that couldn't keep up with demand.* I spent a good chunk of time and energy boiling my water in a big pot on the stove which sadly became routine. By the time winter rolled around (and we got a great deal of snow that year), I was so tired of using boiled water for my morning coffee that I resorted to boiling snow on occassion (being very careful to avoid yellow or other discoloured areas when collecting snow for my pot of course.) Other than being a pain in the butt, the water aggrevated my skin over time. I developed a couple rashes and it didn't do any favours for my psoriasis either.
I'm feel fortunate looking back that at least my house had pipes and a flush toilet. About half of the community didn't. In fact, most of the students I taught that year had their only exposure to flush toilets at either the school or the adjacent nursing station. For the most part their houses had honey buckets, foul contraptions I would use out of necessity when camping but not something I would want to have to deal with on a daily basis.
All this is to say that this whole issue is not just an Aboriginal issue, a white issue, a black issue or a purple issue or whatever issue certain political ideologues on either side of the spectrum try to make it out to be. This is quite simply a human rights issue and its high time it was dealt with.
*Its my understanding that in the meantime, a new water treatment plant was constructed, but it brings little comfort to me now when I think back on all I had to endure that year.
Monday, May 03, 2010
As I've hinted on my other blog, I know longer work for my current employer. As promised, I've decided to post my reasons here on this blog rather than sully my other blog with mention of my former employer's ineptitude. I've thought long and hard about what I am about to say. Something needs to be said.
When I moved to Janvier it was with the clear intention of staying awhile and putting down some roots. Sadly, this was not to be. While I had close to a decade of experience under my belt, the majority of it in Nunavut, I still found myself unprepared for my new work environment. I taught in one school (not in Nunavut, I should add) that was so horrid in terms of enforcing discipline that I felt it impossible to encounter a comparable situation in my career. How wrong I was.
Northland School Division is truly not a place I would recommend to any aspiring teacher to apply to. Understand that during my career I have suffered black eyes, broken bones, racism, vandalism and have had my house broken into. But at least I always felt supported and I always managed to find a way to get through. Not so for Northland School Division. And while I freely admit I've made my fair share of mistakes, I find it absolutely disgusting that I was never supported in my discipline efforts at my former "school".
Rather than enforce the school discipline policy, which was agreed to by all teaching staff, I should add, my former principal merely gave them a "talking to" before cycling them back into my class or worse yet, did nothing. Always, I was made to feel like I was the bad guy. I had a decade of northern experience under my belt. I felt like I could be a real asset to my school and the board. Each day became a struggle. When a student kicks at you and then returns the next day and announces to everyone that they can do whatever they please because they know there is nothing you can do to get them suspended, you know you're in for a long year. Emails to higher-ups expressing my concerns went unanswered. Clearly then, it was only a matter of time until I hit a very rough week. I ended up raising my voice too many times and parents complained. I was asked to take some time off by my board while they investigated things. After languishing for 3 weeks, during which time emails asking for more information on when I might hear a response went unanswered, I had had enough. I resigned. I can only lay the blame for this at the feet of Superintendent Pier de Paola, Assistant Superintendent Shelly Willier and F.R. Perin School Principal John Proctor. Computers, internet, SMART Boards and video conferencing are all wonderful gadgets to have and can have a real positive impact on the learning environment. But it is all for naught when that learning environment is poisoned by students who clearly shouldn't be in a "normal" classroom setting.
At the end of the day, students suffer. Kids that are keen to learn are handicapped by peers who couldn't care less about whether any learning takes place and by administrators who are more concerned about squeezing one more year in before retirement than with actually making a difference. Not only did I work at this school, but I had two children of my own in the school. Therefore, a healthy learning environment is very important to me. Unlike many families with kids at schools in Northland, at least I have the luxury of pulling my kids out and enrolling them in a real school in Fort McMurray, which we now obviously have.
Northland School Division has a hard time retaining staff. It's 4-year retention rate is less than half of the provincial average. With that kind of turn over, you know you're in trouble. (Visit this popular website advertising positions Canada-wide for any length of time and you begin to notice, the division always has a lot of positions to fill at the end of every school year.) Had I known this one simply fact, I quite likely would never have moved my family there. I also wish I had been told prior to coming here that during the previous year the school went through 3 principals and my class had 4 teachers. But I suppose the school board would be a little sensitive about THAT little detail raising its little head.
Initially I felt fortunate that we would be getting a nice board-supplied teacherage as not all communities within the board have them. It was one of the few 3-bedroom units the board had so we felt spoiled. I was told upon being hired that it was newly renovated and ready for us to move in. At 1700 square feet, it was downright palatial compared to some of the housing units I lived in in other northern communities when I was single. Of course, the housing office failed to mention a host of underlying issues with the house. Issues that became apparent within weeks of moving in. It started with major sewage issues, which I've mentioned on my Alberta blog. Our house was the only one with water and sewage tanks and a cracked sewage pipe meant that we had raw sewage backing up into the basement in the fall. Clearly, if you have 3 children in your house under the age of 6, this is not a good environment. Getting the problem resolved was a huge headache. As a result of this and also because the hamlet was inept when it came to filling our water tank and emptying our sewage tank, we went a span of two to three weeks when we couldn't use water in our house. Either we had no water or we did but we were getting sewage backup. I had to resort to buying some large plastic containers and filling them with water at the school so we could have water.
We put no small effort into turning the basement into a play area for the kids and in the event they couldn't even use it because of our fears of mold and bacterial contamination in the dry wall. It angers me beyond belief that the kids had to endure this because some idiot somewhere within the colossus of the school board failed to do their job properly. Also, our fridge went, our washing machine died on us and our furnace blew in February while I was out for a meeting in Edmonton. The school board has a very small crew for housing maintenance that is responsible for some 23 schools and 140 teacherages covering a massive chunk of Alberta. Of course these people do their best but that doesn't offer much comfort when it takes a few days to get hold of anyone and a few more days waiting for the problem to be dealt with.
Northland School Division, for those who may be unaware, has plenty of other problems to deal with. I like to think that the inquiry team's recommendations will lead to real change. I AM an optimist after all.
I read some of the problems Northland School Division faces in this news item here though and I have to admit to having serious doubts.
Logically, it makes little sense to have 23 small school schools spread out over a huge geographical area. Maintenance and communication are major issues. In mind there are only two real solutions. You could create a number of smaller boards with local control of education. This is already the case in many isolated communities in Northern Ontario. Local communities have a much better understanding and appreciation of students culture and needs than bureaucrats hundreds of kilometers away.
You could also split up the board and fold schools into surrounding school divisions. The communities of Fort MacKay, Anzac, Janvier and Conklin all lie within a 90 minute of drive of Fort McMurray. If you want more efficient service, communication and appreciation for what its like "on the ground", it makes more sense to make them part of the Fort McMurray School Board than have them under a board headquartered an 8-9 hour drive away in Peace River.
I know there are people out there that will simply dismiss my rant as sour grapes. The one thing I've always tried to stick to in life, though, is telling the truth. And frankly, if this makes some people feel embarrassed or uncomfortable, then so be it.