Fort Gibraltar events on hold until engineer issues report

The venue welcomed about 2,000 children for its special programming between the months of May and June, on average.

Fort Gibraltar is closed and upcoming events are on hold pending an engineer’s report after a section of the historical site’s elevated walkway collapsed under the weight of students and a teacher during a school trip Wednesday.

The Seven Oaks School Division redirected two groups that were scheduled to visit Whittier Park – a popular destination for students of all ages, wedding parties and history buffs – on Thursday.

Owing to the uncertainty at the venue, the classes changed their plans and went to Kildonan Park instead, said superintendent Brian O’Leary.

Festival du Voyageur, which maintains and operates the trading post, declined to comment on how many field trips had been planned for June.

While the winter carnival is the most popular time for student visits, the venue welcomed about 2,000 children for its special programming between the months of May and June, on average, in the five years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Tours typically involve costumed interpreters delivering workshops and lessons about life in and around 1810 – when the North West Company built the original fort. Students explore the palisade and learn about the fur trade and complex relationships between the various groups in the area, including First Nations people, Métis families and settlers from Europe.

Depending on the program, entry costs between $5.50 and $7.50 per student. Financial records show festival’s school-related revenue was just under $150,000 for the fiscal year that ended March 2019.

The Free Press reached out to all metro school boards — Winnipeg, Seven Oaks, Louis Riel, St. James-Assiniboia, River East Transcona, Pembina Trails and the francophone district — to learn whether they had outings planned to the site this month.

“We can confirm that no schools will be taking field trips to Fort Gibraltar this month as the facility is closed indefinitely,” said Michelle Lancaster, communications officer for the St. James-Assiniboia School Division, in an email.

Lancaster said principals will reconsider trip requests to the venue “at such a time as it is determined to be safe by the appropriate experts.”

Three classes of Grade 5 students from St. John’s-Ravenscourt School, a private academy in Fort Garry, were touring the grounds shortly before 10 a.m. on May 31 when a lookout platform caved in and a group fell to the ground.

Seventeen elementary students and a teacher were rushed to the Health Sciences Centre, which had declared a “code orange,” a disaster occurring outside the hospital. Doctors treated patients for broken bones and other injuries – none of which was life-threatening.

Given Seven Oaks is planning an end-of-year luncheon on the grounds next week, O’Leary’s office reached out to Festival du Voyageur to find out about the status of the event. The superintendent was told that while only an exterior portion of the site was damaged, the entire facility has been closed as structural engineers undertake an investigation.

The risk manager at the Manitoba School Boards Association said public schools are required to collect signed “informed consent forms” that outline the inherent risks associated with a trip.

“We understand that unexpected things can happen and we ask that organizers have plans in place for what to do, who to call etc.,” said Darren Thomas, noting boards often draw on Manitoba Physical Activity Safety in Schools and YouthSafe guidelines when drawing up policies.

In the case of visits to sites such as Fort Gibraltar and Fort Whyte, Seven Oaks’ superintendent said schools rely on a site manager to ensure facilities are up to safety standards.

“We would rely on that site to ensure that it’s safe. They are accepting school field trips and are knowledgeable,” O’Leary said.

The Manitoba Federation of Independent Schools did not respond to a request Thursday.

Jim Keefe, head of school at SJR, was not made available for an interview. In a statement, the school said it is “focused on the care and support of our school.”

Administrators are making counselling available as needed, with school counsellors, external clinicians and community crisis workers on site this week, SJR said.

Father Niranjan Paul, who called the situation “bad luck” on Thursday, indicated he will keep an eye out for updates as investigators determine the cause of the collapse.

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“(My son) is feeling that he’s sad for his friends who’ve fallen there, and sad for everything, but he told (me) that ‘I was OK,’” said Paul, whose 10-year-old was on the grounds when the bridge split in two.

The boy witnessed some of his peers fall from between four to six metres, but the section of the platform he was standing on did not give out.

“Trauma happens when something sudden, unexpected, out of our control overwhelms and terrifies us and absolutely what happened to the kids is potentially traumatic,” said Carl Heaman-Warne, a marriage and family therapist and instructor at the University of Winnipeg.

Heaman-Warne said shock, outrage, fear and disbelief are among the range of emotions families can expect, and they may come in waves over the coming days and weeks. Other students may simply chalk up the event to a “weird” experience, he said.

The therapist urged guardians to look out for changes in eating and sleeping patterns, including nightmares, which are common examples of a child’s physiological reaction to trauma.

It’s important for affected students and adults to find someone they can trust to lean on to ground oneself, he said, adding it’s beneficial to first remind oneself of their current status as safe when revisiting an event that made one feel unsafe.

This story was originally published in The Free PressIt is republished under a Creative Commons license as part of the Local Journalism Initiative.

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