Coun. Dave Lamouche of Gift Lake says he is pushing his community to do long-term planning because young people are leaving the small northern Albertan town and not returning.

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Councillor Dave Lamouche said Gift Lake Alta., needs to find ways to encourage its young people to return to the small northern community after they leave it to receive an education. (Niall McKenna/CBC News) ((Niall McKenna/CBC News))

Lamouche told CBC News that it's now or never to stem the tide of young people leaving Gift Lake to ensure the community survives, especially with provincial funding running out this year.

Lamouche, who has been a councillor in Metis settlement about 85 km northeast of High Prairie for about 20 years, said it is important young people return to the community once they receive an education.

He returned after obtaining a management degree.

"On one hand, I want our kids to go out and experience mainstream society, to be able to compete with society, to be contributors to society," he told CBC News.

"And on the other hand, you know, you want to be able to help the people at home.

"In Gift Lake, now, we've lived there, we had made a deal with the government, we called the Metis Settlements Accord. The deal has come and gone. We had enough money to build and, you know, try to bring our community up to a certain standard, which, I think, in my opinion, failed miserably."

Gift Lake isn't a stranger to problems

The unemployment rate in the community sits at 40 to 50 per cent.

Many homes are crowded and dilapidated.

There are also problems with drugs and alcohol, officials said.

As for education, some students just aren't interested in furthering themselves.

Gift Lake's local school is run by the troubled Northland School Division.

Concerns about student achievement and staff turnover prompted Education Minister Dave Hancock to fire the entire board in January.

An official trustee now runs the division, which covers schools in a vast swatch of northern Alberta.

Some students don't come to classes for weeks, even months at a time.

One Grade 2 student has missed one out of every three days this year, CBC News learned.

Poor attendance - as a lot of teachers pointed out - leads to poor test scores.

According to government statistics, only 19.6 per cent of Northland students completed high school within three years of entering Grade 10. The provincial average is 70.7 per cent.

Some attribute the problem to the fact half the communities served by Northland don't have a high school program, forcing students to go out of town.

For students who do want an education, there are few jobs to bring them back, forcing them to leave Gift Lake and not return.

Community went on spending spree: councillor

Lamouche attributes the problems to the money Gift Lake and other Metis settlements got from the Alberta government in the 1990s. Communities had big ambitions but no long-term planning on how to spend the millions, he said.

Gift Lake essentially went on a spending spree, Lamouche said.

The community built a hotel, but had to sell it after it lost money.

They also bought equipment for oil and gas exploration and logging, but  that's now obsolete, the councillor said.

And work to change all that is slowly underway.

Part of the community's solution now is throwing more money at the problem, Lamouche said.

Gift Lake said it plans to pay for the university and college education of people who want it. There will be no requirement for them to return to the community.

Lamouche said there is a more urgent, pressing concern.

Money from Alberta will run out this year.

More than $500,000 from a $4.3-million 2008 provincial budget aiding Metis communities like Gift Lake will be gone, Lamouche said.

He said Gift Lake's local council needs to get its act together and create a business plan before the money runs out.

"When I moved back to Gift Lake, my heart was to make some changes in terms of changing the thinking of the leaders," Lamouche said.

"Yes, this is how much money we have, you know, but let's not just concentrate on what we have. What is out there? What can we get? What kind of other, you know, funding can we get?

"I mean, yes, the government put a moratorium on this, well, let's look at other industries."

Young people need role models in Gift Lake

Lamouche wants to see more people like Sharon Anderson.

Anderson, who grew up in Gift Lake, returned to the community after obtaining her university degree in social work.

Only four people, including herself, have an university degree in Gift Lake, Anderson told CBC News.

Anderson, who chairs the community's local school board, said young people need more role models in order to come back to Gift Lake after their schooling.

"I'd love to see more of our people going out there and becoming teachers to come and teach our kids," she said.

"When, you know, you talk about the issue of recruiting and retaining teachers, what better resource would be than to home-grow your teachers, right?"

With files from the CBC's Niall McKenna