'We feel very unappreciated': Sagkeeng First Nation teachers protesting contracts
Some Sagkeeng teachers are seeking wage parity with teachers in neighbouring Sunrise School Division
As students return to school across the province, children at one First Nations school are off to a rocky start.
A number of elementary school teachers on Sagkeeng First Nation are protesting what they say is unfair pay after contract negotiations broke down.
"We're not being treated right at all," said Grade 2 teacher Bernice Courchene.
On Monday, Courchene was one of a handful of teachers who went to school to take attendance, but didn't do any work in protest. She said a number of other teachers didn't go to work at all.
Courchene has worked at the school for more than 20 years and said this is the worst start to the year she's ever experienced.
The First Nation, which is about 130 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg on Lake Winnipeg, is home to a kindergarten to Grade 8 school, as well as a high school.
Negotiating for parity
Leila Spiers has worked at the elementary school teaching Grade 1 for nine years. She told CBC News the teachers at the school tried to negotiate a pay raise last year that would bring them in line with what teachers in the neighbouring Sunrise School Division are making.
When that was denied, the Sagkeeng teachers said they were promised their salary would be raised to be in line with what teachers from the school division made in 2014 and 2015.
The teachers accepted the raise and expected their pay stubs to reflect the increase when they returned to work on Aug. 26, but they didn't see the updated contract until last Friday and Spiers said it wasn't what was promised.
"We are currently being paid about $6,000 less [a year] than the salary scale that they promised, but it's still about $20,000 less than our neighbouring teachers," she explained.
"It was a surprise to us that we weren't getting our increment. That we weren't getting paid what's promised to us."
Spiers and Courchene said they've been waiting for better pay for years, but feel strongly connected to their students and the community.
"If we weren't here for the kids we wouldn't be coming in for such low pay. We love our students," Spiers said.
When I was a first year teacher, the pay was a little less than what I'm making now. But that was a first year teacher. I'm 20 years in now.- Ursula Bruyere, Grade 5 and 6 teacher
Ursula Bruyere has been working at the school for over 20 years teaching grades 5 and 6, but she started her teaching career in Manitoba's Frontier School Division.
"When I was a first-year teacher [at the school division], the pay was a little less than what I'm making now. But that was a first-year teacher. I'm 20 years in now," she said.
Bruyere told CBC News the contract the teachers negotiated, which is in line with the Sunrise School Division's collective agreement from 2014, would mean a class 4 teacher with 10 years experience should be making almost $79,000, but a teacher of that class she knows is making $72,000. Bruyere, who is a class 5 teacher, should be making just over $83,000 according to their negotiated contract, but she said she isn't even getting that.
"I passed up three job offers because I wanted to stay in my community," she said, adding she's now considering leaving to teach outside the community.
Meeting with the community
Sagkeeng's chief and council posted online Sunday they will host a community meeting Tuesday at the band hall about the ongoing dispute. The notice said chief and council stand behind the director of education.
Sagkeeng Education Authority director Crissy Courchene declined to comment and asked CBC News to contact Chief Derrick Henderson, however she did acknowledge there are some disgruntled teachers and the education authority is dealing with the situation.
Henderson declined to comment ahead of the community meeting.
Courchene said she's worried the community meeting will turn into a yelling match and said many teachers don't want to attend.
"Already we're getting a lot of negativity on Facebook," she said. "There are a lot of f-bombs and some people are saying that we're being greedy."
We just want to be treated fairly and equally compared to other teachers in the region.- Leila Spiers, Grade 1 teacher
Spiers said the teachers' requests are simple: "We just want to be treated fairly and equally compared to other teachers in the region."
The teachers said they often settle for little pay because they feel guilty pursuing job action when their students mean so much to them.
Courchene said there was talk of striking last week, but teachers are tentatively going back to work Tuesday with the hope their updated contract will be negotiated this week with chief and council.
CBC News reached out Sept. 6 to Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada for a breakdown of funding on Sagkeeng First Nation, but has not received a response.