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First Nation seeks $24M to build Grade 6-12 school in Port Renfrew

If the federal government approves the request, students would no longer need to make a three-hour round trip to attend middle-school and secondary-school classes in Sooke
Sooke School District board chair Ravi Parmar says the board ­supports the Pacheedaht request and is also making its case to the province for a new K-5 school in the community. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

The Pacheedaht First Nation in Port Renfrew is stepping up its effort to establish a Grade 6 to 12 school in the community — sparing students the need to travel an hour-and-a-half each way to attend middle-school and secondary-school classes in Sooke 75 kilometres away.

It’s asking the federal government for $24 million to build the school, with a decision expected within a few months, said Pacheedaht executive director Roger Nopper.

The goal is to have an 80-student school built to the highest environmental standards by September 2024, he said. The Pacheedaht plan to run the school themselves, which means it would come under federal jurisdiction.

The Pacheedaht have also partnered with the Sooke School District to push for a new kindergarten-to-Grade 5 school in the community, replacing one that opened in 1970.

Sooke School Board chair Ravi Parmar said the existing K-5 school, which is home to 19 students, is one of the most seismically unsafe schools in the province. “It’s your typical old cinder-block building.”

Nopper said a local school for the community’s older students is an important goal, especially for those who take distance-learning programs or moved out of the community to avoid the three-hour daily return trip.

“It would be a boost for everyone,” he said. “It would bring people back to the community that had to leave because of education. It would increase the attractiveness for people moving back to the Port Renfrew area.”

About 300 members of the nation live in the Port Renfrew area, including about 100 on the reserve. Port Renfrew itself has a population of 350 to 400.

Port Renfrew Chamber of Commerce president Karl Ablack said his organization fully supports the ­Pacheedaht request for funding for a school for Grade 6-12 students. “There’s no question that would be a huge benefit for the community,” he said.

Parmar said the school board has also sent a letter to the ­federal government backing the Pacheedaht request and calling the long journey students face “unacceptable.”

The board has also made its case to the province for the new K-5 school, he said, and expects to hear back in a matter of weeks.

If both are approved, the result would be a “campus-like” setup with the two new schools adjacent to each other, Parmar said.

Alistair MacGregor, who serves Port Renfrew as an NDP MP for Cowichan-Malahat-Langford, is also a strong proponent of the new schools.

He said Friday he has sent a letter to Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu and Infrastructure and Communities Minister Dominic LeBlanc to say he is “fully in support” of what the Pacheedaht are trying to achieve.

In the letter, he described the route from Port Renfrew to Sooke as a “winding, bumpy coastal highway which can be affected by frost and fallen trees at certain times of the year.”

A new Port Renfrew Elementary is the top priority in the school district’s provincial capital-plan submission for 2022-23, Parmar said, followed by a new elementary school in Royal Bay and one in north Langford.

Also on the list are seismic work for Sooke Elementary, a replacement for Millstream Elementary, an addition for Ruth King Elementary and building-envelope work at Edward Milne Community School.

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