A war of words has erupted between leaders of a Manitoba First Nation and the union representing Manitoba teachers.
George Beaulieu, education director of Sandy Bay First Nation, fired back Wednesday at the Manitoba Teachers' Society and former Sandy Bay teachers' claims that working conditions at the First Nation were "deplorable."
Beaulieu said teachers have lined up to work at the First Nation.
"We've recruited seven new teachers and turned away at least 20 very, very good candidates," he said.
He called the complaints that surfaced Tuesday "sour grapes" from teachers whose contracts were not renewed because they didn't meet the standard.
Chief asks for patience
The chief of Sandy Bay also lashed back Wednesday, saying he was blindsided by the union's going public with teachers' complaints.
"I am here to point fingers," Chief Russell Beaulieu said Wednesday.
But he admitted there have been delays getting teachers their cheques on time. He said benefit deductions have been taken off their pay cheques, but have not been forwarded to the insurance company.
He blamed the financial stress on former chief, Irvin McIvor, who he said left the band $19 million of debt when his term ended.
Beaulieu said the band has already paid back $6 million of that, and everything is now up to date. But still, he said, it is a challenging time, and he is asking teachers to be patient as the band sorts out its financial woes.
"Trying to keep everybody happy, especially the teachers with their paydays," he said. "We admit there have been sporadic paydays where we missed one. But as of today, payroll is up to date."
Sandy Bay's lawyer, Norman Boudreau, tried to explain why teachers haven't been able to access their benefits.
"There is just a pot of money, and so many teachers to pay, and employees to pay, those monies are used to just make payroll," he said.
'Between the surreal and the bizarre'
Manitoba Teachers' Society president Paul Olson rejected the chief's claim that he was caught off guard.
"I am trying to be respectful, but that ranges somewhere between the surreal and bizzare," Olson said Wednesday.
He said the union has been trying to negotiate with Sandy Bay's chief and council for 19 months.
He said it's the union's job to step in to protect its members.
"We have teachers who are not sure if they will be buying groceries for their kids," he said. "They are not sure if their mortgage or car payment will clear. Enough. We are done."
Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada said it is monitoring Sandy Bay's situation.
"This situation is completely unacceptable and we encourage the First Nation to resolve their financial difficulties as quickly as possible," said a spokesperson in a statement to CBC.
The statement added that the goal is to "ensure that teachers receive pay and benefits, and that First Nation students have access to a good education."