Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett says the shortage of teachers on northern and remote First Nations "has been happening for way too long." But, she says, there's still learning to be done about solving the problem. 

Up to 200 kids in Shamattawa First Nation are out of school due to a lack of teachers, and 36 more teacher vacancies have been identified by northern Manitoba First Nations. 

"I think that the way it is funded now, it's difficult to make those comparisons because of the way that it is has been book-kept. But there is equitable funding, it's just that the needs may be even greater," Bennett said. 

"We believe it is [equitable funding], but we still need the analysis as to how we do better," she added. 

Liberal promises

The Liberal government has committed to spending $2.6 billion over five years — not the promised four — on First Nations kindergarten to grade 12 education. (CBC News)

Indigenous programming has been hampered by a two per cent cap on annual spending increases since the 1990s, while the school-age First Nations population has risen 29 per cent since 1997.  Last year, those inequities were criticized by Canada's parliamentary budget officer, who said federal funding for First Nations education was $665 million less than provincial education systems.

Reversing that cap was one of the first promises made by Justin Trudeau during last year's election campaign, through a $2.6-billion commitment over four years to boost spending to bring on-reserve students in line with their non-Indigenous counterparts.

First Nations kids get about 30 per cent of the per-capita funding kids in provincially funded schools do, and teachers can be paid as much as 50 per cent less as a result. Paunigassi First Nation education director Roddy Owens said three applicants recently declined offers over the low pay, about $15,000-20,000 lower than what they could make down south. 

Bennett said higher cost of living on reserve is also a factor, adding that "it may not even be enough, to just be equitable."

"We want First Nations to design their own school systems, then we will fund it appropriately," said Bennett. 

Part of the solution, she said, is supporting more First Nations teachers.In order to address the shortage of teachers in places like Northern Manitoba, she pointed to the example of organizations like Teach for Canada, which try to prepare non-Indigenous teachers to go into First Nations communities and be successful.

"I met a young woman who is teaching Grade Five with no training in Northwestern Ontario. We want young people to want to grow up and be teachers," said Bennett. "That doesn't happen when the role models have not been there and where the kids saddle up to their teacher on Labour Day and say 'how long are you staying?'"

"We've got to change our way of educating as well. Such that there's much more on the land and language immersion, and the kinds of things that we know promotes success," said Bennett.

"I think that we know that elders could play a huge role in language and culture and in teaching on the land. You can learn physics by not being able to get your canoe forward in the wind or chemistry with brain-tanning the hide."

Last year, the government entered into a new funding model with the Manitoba First Nations Education School System to provide funding for 10 schools as a new division, increasing the per-student funding by 35 per cent or about $18,000 per student, which is comparable to per-capita funding for students in the south. 

"The language and culture and being proud of who you are — that secure, personal, cultural identity — is imperative to having better health, education and economic outcomes."

Defers to MMIWG inquiry on regional representation

On Thursday, Indigenous leaders in Manitoba called on the inquiry to have Manitoban representation on an executive level.

Bennett responded to the calls by saying that it is "an arm's length inquiry, and the commissioners have every right to organize themselves in the way that they see fit."

She acknowledged that the inquiry has identified a Manitoba regional community liaison — Maureen Gabriel — and that it is a step in the right direction. She also said that they have heard from families and the needs are same across the country.

"But obviously the families here in Manitoba need support and again, it's what we heard from all of the families, they want to see justice, they want support, they want to prevent this happening to other families," said Bennett.

On Friday afternoon, she acknowledged that there has been problems with the National Inquiry, including a lack of communication with families, who feel they have been left in the dark.

"We will now listen to families, we know that there was a problem, the families weren't feeling heard throughout the process," she said. 

She said that the federal government has set up funding for a family liaison unit for victim services in each of the provinces and territories. 

"We need those up and running in each province and territory, because unfortunately, this tragedy is ongoing. Until we can stop it, we need that kind of support in Manitoba," said Bennett.

"That's the work of the commission and we believe that we also have an obligation to get on with racism, sexism and policing, the overhaul of the child welfare industry, the housing, the shelters, our governments have to get going on all of that, and we are."