Teacher shortage in Shamattawa First Nation leaves hundreds of kids out of school

Approximately 200 students who were set to begin school at the end of August still haven't started classes in Shamattawa First Nation because there are not enough teachers.

A series of youth-involved arsons over the last year is making it tough to attract teachers, the chief says

A boy plays table soccer in Shamattawa First Nation in Sept. 2016. (Jill Coubrough/CBC News)

Approximately 200 students who were set to begin school at the end of August still haven't started classes in Shamattawa First Nation because there are simply not enough teachers.

Classes were supposed to begin Aug. 28 but as of mid-September, principal Lawrence Einarsson said they were short 11 teachers.

Chief Jeffrey Napaokesik said he sees the impact first-hand — his grandson is one of the elementary students who hasn't gone back to school.

"I see the disappointment in my grandson's face because you look forward to another school year and the first few days is crucial for a kid to be in school," he said. "Other kids go to school and you feel left out. I know that."

Napaokesik and Einarsson said it has been difficult to attract and retain teachers given the string of youth-involved arsons in the community.

"A lot of this has to stem back from what happened," Einarsson said. "Teachers really don't want to come here ... Two Grade 3 teachers resigned [Wednesday]."

Last September, the fly-in First Nation located 750 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg declared a state of emergency after losing its band office and only grocery store to a fire set by kids.

A 12-year-old boy was charged with arson but five other children were too young to be charged, RCMP said at the time.

Kids still setting fires: chief

One year later, arsons involving children are still happening.

The community has lost a warehouse, a portion of an old school and several houses to arson, Einarsson said.

Small children snuck in and set fire to two housing units built for teachers, Napaokesik added.

"It's very hard to see buildings go up in flames," Napaokesik said. "It's a very bold statement that's coming out from Shamattawa to potential teachers that were thinking of coming."     

An RCMP officer works to douse flames at the band office and Northern Store which burned to the ground in Sept. 2016. (RCMP/Twitter)

Einarsson flew to Winnipeg to begin the recruitment process but he admits it could take weeks before the vacancies are filled.

The school is looking to hire teachers for Grade 3, Grade 4, Grade 5 and Grade 7 as well as a high-school English teacher, two resource teachers and a vice-principal.

Common problem across Canada's north

Communities across Canada's north are grappling with a shortage of educators, according to Teach for Canada.

"Shamattawa First Nation is experiencing a particularly extreme set of circumstances but unfortunately this is a very, very common problem," Sara-Christine Gemson, a spokesperson for Teach for Canada said.

The Toronto-based non-profit works to recruit and prepare teachers to work in Ontario First Nations. Gemson said lower salaries, a fear of the unknown and a lack of awareness about opportunities are just some of the barriers preventing teachers from heading north.

"When teachers can't find a job in the south, often what they do is apply to teach in Korea or England instead of knowing that there is a possibility of staying in their country," she said. "There is important work to be done in de-mystifying the north and the opportunities that exist there." 

Concerns growing

Back in Shamattawa, concerns are growing over the lack of structure and recreation for students out of school. Napaokesik said he worries it could lead to more fires.

"We need to get these kids in school so that they're away from trouble," he said.

The loss of the band office and Northern Store prompted calls for action from federal agencies including more recreation and better mental health supports.

While the physical buildings are being replaced and Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada has provided additional funding for school programming, Einarsson said, that hasn't been able to quell fears entirely.

Principal Lawrence Einarsson said it could take weeks before the teaching vacancies are filled. (Jill Coubrough/CBC News)

Nancy Thomas, a retired mental health counsellor, said she worries her community is "getting worse." She points to the continued arsons, mental health crises and the high number of children in foster care.

The chief estimates 300 children are in the care of child welfare, in a community of roughly 1,500 people

That figure has remained consistent over many years, she said.

"There's so many children in care," Thomas said. "It does hurt a lot because of what's happening in the reserve, seeing the children, they're so many youth and children going to court."

Last year, Thomas and other community members told CBC News the combination of isolation, a lack of recreation and grief from a cluster of suicides in recent years were taking their toll.

The community has not seen any suicides this year, according to the chief, but community members say there have been attempts.

'Give our youth a chance'

Napaokesik acknowledges there are still challenges but he said there are a number of projects on the horizon he hopes will help. 

A brand new band office and Northern Store, which will house a restaurant, is slated to open in January.

At the school, a videoconferencing service is being installed in a private room to connect students with health professionals in Winnipeg, Einarsson said.

The chief is working with INAC on the development of a youth wellness and recreation centre. It can be a space to gather for everything from sporting events to wedding socials, he said.

"We hired an architect and engineering firm, with our ideas and the ideas that came from the youth," Napaokesik said.

Band officials are also in discussions about turning an old nursing station into a group home to help transition youth in care back into the community, he said.

The priority right now, however, is to get all kids back to school. Napaokesik hopes prospective teachers see beyond the headlines and consider life in the pristine northern First Nation.

"Give our youth, our children a chance," he said.
Approximately 200 students who were set to begin school at the end of August still haven't started classes in Shamattawa First Nation because there are simply not enough teachers. 2:22

About the Author

Jill Coubrough

Reporter, CBC News

Jill Coubrough is a video journalist with CBC News based in Winnipeg. Before joining CBC Manitoba, she worked as a reporter for CBC News in Halifax and an associate producer for CBC's documentary series Land and Sea. She holds a degree in political studies from the University of Manitoba and a degree in journalism from the University of King's College in Halifax. Email: jillian.coubrough@cbc.ca.