Parents in Colville Lake, NWT, speak out about a school trip that left their children with severe frostbite

A log cabin in front of the Colville Lake School in Colville Lake, NWT, pictured in January 2020. The school didn't provide details of the November trip, but some parents want answers as to what went wrong.  (John Last/CBC - photo credit)

A log cabin in front of the Colville Lake School in Colville Lake, NWT, pictured in January 2020. The school didn’t provide details of the November trip, but some parents want answers as to what went wrong. (John Last/CBC – photo credit)

Warning: This story contains a graphic image of frostbite.

Some parents in Colville Lake, NWT, speak about an overnight school trip last November that left their children with severe frostbite.

Jennifer Lafferty, whose daughter Pearl was traveling, said she had told the Sahtú Divisional Education Council (SDEC), the school’s governing body, about the incident, but had heard nothing of an investigation or disciplinary action taken against the teacher responsible. Lafferty says the incident wasn’t taken seriously enough.

Pearl Lafferty, who was 10 at the time of the incident, returned from the trip with frostbite on her legs and face so severe that she was taken to Norman Wells Health Center, 150 kilometers away, for nine days of treatment.

According to parents, the Nov. 29 trip involved a group of 12 students and four supervisors traveling by snowmobile, along with at least one teacher. The SDEC did not answer questions about whether supervisors were trained in first aid.

Jennifer said the parents were told before the trip that the students would be camping out overnight in the countryside and that they should dress appropriately. It was about -30 degrees that day. Jennifer said Pearl wore winter clothes when she went out.

Then, before the group left, Jennifer said she received a text message from the teacher asking if Pearl could drive a snowmobile.

“I told him, ‘Well, I’d prefer if she doesn’t ride the Ski-Doo when it gets cold outside, like she should be in the sled,'” Jennifer recalled.

According to Jennifer, Pearl ended up driving a snowmobile. During this ride, her snow pants somehow got pushed up her legs, exposing the skin on her lower legs where she got frostbite. The wind also caused frostbite on the face.

Alicia Orlias, another student on the trip, also drove a snowmobile and suffered severe frostbite on her ear from the ride, according to her mother, Stephanie Orlias.

“I was really angry about that. Like they dumped all the kids on the Ski-Doos when they should have been on the sled,” Stephanie said.

Both parents said riding in a sled behind the snowmobiles would have given their children more protection from the wind. Driving the snowmobiles makes it easier for winter gear to get around and expose skin to the winter elements, they argue.

Both Pearl and another student were separated from the teacher on the way to camp.

“They’re just little kids outside like they can’t drive fast,” Jennifer said.

Jennifer said two other students also suffered frostbite from traveling to camp. CBC News reached out to a third parent who confirmed the event but gave no details.

CBC News also contacted the teacher by phone and Facebook, but received no response. CBC News is not naming the teacher pending the outcome of an investigation by the SDEC.

SDEC Superintendent Renee Closs told CBC News in an email that the SDEC is taking steps to investigate and address the situation. She declined to comment on the details of the investigation.

Closs said that parental consent for school trips “is always obtained prior to the activity taking place.”

Overnight in camp

When the group finally got to camp that night, the frozen students apparently spent the night before it was decided they needed medical attention.

Pearl and Alicia returned to town the next day after being picked up by some other parishioners and their family.

Jennifer said Pearl arrived in town crying in pain.

Pearl was taken to the Colville Lake Health Center, where it was determined that she had to go to the larger Norman Wells Health Center.

Jennifer Lafferty

Jennifer Lafferty

Pearl’s frostbite has since healed, although she still has some scars on her legs.

Alicia came back from the trip with red and swollen ears. Stephanie said she took her daughter to the health center where she was given an ointment and after a few days a blister formed in Alicia’s ear. Stephanie said the blister went away after about a week and Alicia has been fine ever since, although her ear occasionally gets irritated.

Incident ignored, says parents

Jennifer said Pearl did not want to go ashore again after the experience.

“When she came back she said, ‘I’m never going into the bush with them again.’ And we, we loved raising our kids in the bush — and their dad is going to the bush tomorrow and he asked her and she just said ‘no,'” Jennifer said.

Jennifer said she felt like the incident had been ignored.

She said she was briefly in touch with Closs, to whom she sent photos of her daughter’s injuries, but had not heard of any investigation or disciplinary action.

“She said she’ll investigate, but to this day I’ve never heard from her,” Jennifer said.

“It’s like saying, ‘Oh, it’s okay what those teachers did.’ Just like being pushed aside.”

RJ Simpson, the NWT’s education minister, said in an emailed statement to CBC News that the SDEC was taking the appropriate steps to investigate.

Simpson also said that shore-based programming is an important part of education in the NWT, but that “the health, well-being and safety of students is of paramount importance and must be considered in all activities.”


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