A program at Brandon University that trains First Nations teachers is facing an uncertain future.

The Program for the Education of Native Teachers (PENT), which is part of the university's Faculty of Education, has taught more than 500 First Nations members to become teachers since 1971. It's not offered anywhere else in Manitoba.

Most of the program's students come from remote First Nations and are trained with culturally relevant material, so that they can teach in their communities.

"They know the communities, they know the schools, they know the students, they work in the schools, and who better to teach these children?" program director Ken Friesen told CBC News.

Laura Brandon, PENT student

PENT student Laura Brandon is in her last semester and will return to the Waywayseecappo First Nation in July to teach. (Jill Coubrough/CBC)

Students in PENT receive intensive training at Brandon University from April to July, then return to their home communities to work on practicums during the regular academic year.

Most graduates complete the program in five to seven years.

"It empowers the students and the youth that it's something that they could do because they're seeing members of their community doing that," said Laura Brandon, a PENT student who will return to Waywayseecappo First Nation in July to teach.

But Friesen said PENT's enrolment has been down in recent years, with 110 students — the bare minimum — signed up this year.

"I think we should be very concerned," he said.

Students pay tuition or are sponsored by their communities. But Friesen said like at other universities, the program's costs are climbing, with students currently paying $750 a course.

Friesen said PENT officials will need to think outside the box at how they can make the program more affordable and keep enrolment numbers up.

The next two to three years will be critical, he said, or else the program will have to be discontinued.

Friesen said the program remains important, since aboriginal peoples make up the fastest-growing segment of Canada's population.

"There's a real need for this type of program and for this kind of teacher and educator," he said.

As well, he said the program's graduates fill a huge niche because the communities they return to may have a high turnover rate of teachers who didn't necessarily grow up there.

With files from the CBC's Jill Coubrough