There is a shortage of at least 36 teachers across northern Manitoba First Nations, forcing some band-operated schools to turn to non-certified teachers and educational assistants to run the classrooms, a CBC News analysis has discovered.
Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO) Grand Chief Sheila North Wilson said the chronic problem is putting generations of First Nations students at a disadvantage.
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"It's unfortunate in this day and age that we see these kinds of problems," North Wilson said. "We're seeing what happens when we don't properly fund our schools and our children are the ones that are suffering the most at no fault of their own."
Cross Lake First Nation, located 500 kilometres north of Winnipeg, began the school year short 10 teachers. Education director Greg Halcrow has been able to hire seven teachers in recent weeks but three positions remain vacant. Until the jobs are filled, educational assistants and retired substitute teachers are leading some classes, he said.
"It's very difficult ... The main thing that has to be addressed here is the funding that First Nations students get that are on-reserve." - Cross Lake education director Greg Halcrow
"It's very difficult," Halcrow said. "The main thing that has to be addressed here is the funding that First Nations students get that are on-reserve."
First Nations schools on reserves are federally funded, and for years, they've received thousands of dollars less per student than other schools.
His two schools receive roughly $7,000 per student — up to 30 per cent lower than students who aren't on reserve, he said.
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One of the consequences is that First Nations are not able to offer competitive salaries to attract teachers.
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.
The Liberal government committed to $2.6 billion over five years in its 2016 budget toward Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada education funding, but Halcrow and other say the roll-out has been slow.
Pauingassi First Nation, a fly-in community 300 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, is short four teachers. Education director Roddy Owens said three applicants recently declined offers over the low pay.
He estimates even with northern allowance, the salaries he can offer are between $15,000 and $20,000 lower than what teachers could make at a public school.
And while the challenge of recruiting is also present, he and others say this year, has been especially difficult.
For God's Lake Narrows First Nation, a community only accessible by boat or air, the remote location adds a significant barrier to attracting prospective teachers, according to Daniel Delorme.
The education director is currently looking to hire two elementary teachers, a junior high math teacher and a special education teacher.
"You just can't get up and walk to Tim Hortons and have a coffee." - God's Lake Narrows education director Daniel Delorme, on living in a remote community
Delorme attributes the turnover to isolation.
"People tend to leave because in the north it's a little bit different," he said. "You just can't get up and walk to Tim Hortons and have a coffee. You get to go out now and then but a lot of times you live here in the community."
Delorme said without adequate funding and qualified teachers, it's the students that lose out.
"That's what bothers me," he said. he said. "I want these young people to be equipped with the skills to survive in whatever world they choose to live in. Whether it's the city life, or out here, they should have those skills that allow them to move around."
Finding a way forward
Beyond a boost in federal dollars, Delorme and Halcrow agree part of the solution is training more First Nations teachers.
The Program for the Education of Native Teachers at Brandon University has been instrumental in training hundreds of First Nations members to become teachers.
Most of the program's students come from remote First Nations and are trained with culturally relevant material so that they can return to teach in their communities.
Halcrow said Cross Lake First Nation has been largely successful in avoiding turnover because 90 per cent of his teachers are from the community.
New First Nations-led school system
This school year was also the start of a new school system in the province: the Manitoba First Nations School System (MFNSS).
Ten First Nations communities signed on to be a part of the school board designed and operated by Manitoba First Nations. The system is unique because the federal government will send funding to the school board itself.
"In other agreements, we're sending money to a chief and council that goes to a school. This way, we're building a school system run by a board, working in close collaboration with educators," Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs said last year.
The agreement also raised the amount of federal money the government provides for each student by 35 per cent, according to Nora Murdock, director of system development for the new division.
"We're always telling kids 'go to school, be successful,' but we're not giving them the proper resources and tools to be successful students." - MKO Grand Chief Sheila North Wilson
Under the agreement, INAC provides $18,000 per student, which is comparable to Manitoba's provincial system, Murdock said.
That has resulted in more competitive wages for teachers, but there are still seven vacancies in the school system, she said, including five teaching positions in York Factory First Nation.
"We find that many teachers applying for positions don't want to go to a northern First Nations community because of access to services, urban centres and the cost of travelling," she said.
All band-operated schools in Manitoba had the option to sign on to the agreement, Murdock said, but she acknowledged it's not for every community.
"Many of the First Nations really want to maintain that local control," she said, adding many fought hard to earn back control from the federal government in the 1970s.
"I think that idea of the treaty right to education, they want to make sure they have a say in the priorities for education in terms of what their children are taught."
The bottom line, for Murdock and North Wilson, is that federal investment in First Nations on-reserve education needs to be brought in line with its provincial counterparts.
"We're always telling kids 'go to school, be successful,' but we're not giving them the proper resources and tools to be successful students," North Wilson said. "It's high time to change it."