Rural communities near Fort McMurray struggling to find, retain teachers

With more than a dozen teachers and staff leaving schools in Wood Buffalo, parents are worried about what’s going to happen to their kids’ education.

'It’s bad enough that they’re facing everyday issues of bullying... Now they've got no education,' says parent

Janet Richards and her son. Her son had just graduated from kindergarten. (Submitted by Janet Richards)

With more than a dozen teachers and staff leaving schools in Wood Buffalo's smaller communities, parents are worried about what's going to happen to their children's education. 

The "education crisis" was brought up at a council meeting in Wood Buffalo, with councillors voting to send a letter to the provincial minister of education, Alberta Indigenous Affairs minister and federal minister of Indigenous Services and have a meeting with community leaders about the issue. 

In Fort Chipewyan, no students graduated high school  this year and 12 teachers left. In Conklin, the entire teaching staff, including the principal left. 

Now the school district is scrambling to replace staff. 

Robin Guild, board chair for Northland School Division, said they're working to fill the positions. 

In Fort Chipewyan, five teachers have been offered jobs and the school division is working on hiring people for the other seven positions. 

In Conklin, a new principal has been hired and positions have been offered to two teachers. 

He said it's always struggle to get teachers into schools in small, remote communities. Northland is trying make it more affordable for teachers by giving them a living allowance to help pay for the high cost of living.

As well, he said the division is also dealing with the same teacher shortage that is affecting schools across Canada. 

Currently, teachers in Fort Chipewyan are offered subsidized housing, with rents between $700 and $1,300 per month. 

Guild said in addition to the high cost of living in Fort Chipewyan, the school building is in a state of disrepair that could make it hard to retain teachers. 

"You take that school in Fort Chipewyan, put it downtown Edmonton. there wouldn't be one kid going to it," said Guild. 

"The parents would refuse to send their kids to that school because it's so run down."

I wish they would care about our kids over here.- Paul Tuccaro, parent

Paul Tuccaro, a parent and member of the parent's council in Fort Chipewyan, is worried about his kids. 

"It's bad enough that they're facing everyday issues of bullying and peer pressure and all that. And now they've got no education."

"I know it's going to affect them long-term," said Tuccaro. 

He said two of his kids have graduated from the school, but they are now upgrading their marks because they can't get into post-secondary education programs. 

He said his family lived in Fort McMurray for a little while and his family had far more educational support in Fort McMurray compared to Fort Chipewyan. 

"I wish that — how they care about the kids in Fort McMurray. I wish they would care about our kids over here."

In Conklin,  Janet Richards sent her son Levi to Kindergarten, but she says he can't get the support he needs. 

She went to Conklin Community School when she grew up and she said it's "really, really sad" to see it now. 

"When we used to go to school there was so much more kids. We had messy hair days, we had carnivals … There's nothing like that at all. There's nothing to look forward to."

Since the council meeting in Fort McMurray, MLA Tany Yao has been in touch with the minister of education. 

"I know that the minister is very concerned. She's aware of the situation."

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange's office told CBC News the minister is currently planning a visit to Wood Buffalo. The goal would be to speak with community members and leaders about some of the struggles with the current education system.