Quebec Education Ministry ignored pleas to help students in Nunavik succeed, ombudsman says

The Quebec ombudsman is calling on the provincial government to step in to help Inuit students overcome the significant obstacles they face in getting an education in Quebec's far north.

Quebec's Inuit territory plagued by 74% drop-out rate, teacher shortage and housing crisis

Just one in four students in Quebec's Inuit territory of Nunavik graduate from high school, compared to nearly four out of five in the province overall. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

The head of the school board in Quebec's Inuit territory of Nunavik is urging the province to address the gaping holes in the education system for its 3,700 Inuit students.

A Quebec ombudsman's report released Wednesday detailed the chronic problems plaguing the region, where only one in four students graduates from high school.

The ombudsman called on the Ministry of Education to provide better follow-up and support the school board for the region, Kativik Ilisarniliriniq (KI), in its attempts to tackle the high drop-out rate and other challenges.

"There were complaints put forth by citizens of our region basically saying that we are in dire straits," said Robert Watt, Kativik's president.

In recent years, the Kativik board has submitted several requests for support to the Ministry of Education, in an attempt to turn around the lamentable graduation rate, which stands at 25.9 per cent, compared to 79 per cent for the province as a whole.

Housing shortage for staff, students alike

Deputy ombudsman Claude Dussault said his team found several factors contributing to that huge gap during its investigation of the education challenges faced by those living in Nunavik's 14 communities.

Difficulties in recruiting and retaining staff year after year mean there are about ten classrooms each year which don't have a teacher when classes start in the fall.

The ombudsman said one challenge in attracting and retaining teachers is the difficulty housing staff that come from the south.

The government has been criticized for its colonialist approach, and now they seem to have moved to the other end of the pendulum.- Quebec Deputy Ombudsman Claude Dussault

In 2015, the Kativik board submitted a request to the province to build apartments for teachers but never got any response.

"The government has been criticized for its colonialist approach, and now they seem to have moved to the other end of the pendulum," Dussault said.

The Kativik School Board says the province has ignored many of its requests to improve services for students in its 17 elementary and secondary schools. (Kativik School Board)

The first to suffer from the housing crisis are the students themselves, Dussault said.

The Kativik Municipal Housing Bureau estimated that in 2017, there was a shortfall of 813 houses in the 14 Inuit communities. So cramped is the housing that some families are forced to sleep in shifts or to share a room.

"Of course, [this] affects the sleep of the young students," said Dussault.

"If they don't sleep well, when they come the next day at school they won't be in good shape, and their capacity to learn will be affected."

Chronic absenteeism

The ombudsman has recommended more Inuit teachers be recruited and trained, as six out of ten teachers in Nunavik are now non-Inuit.

Teachers from the south are often ill-prepared for the challenges and cultural differences they face in their classrooms, the ombudsman said.

Every day, the school board is forced to cancel some classes because a teacher did not show up for work.

"The solution will be to develop teachers from Nunavik," Dussault said.

Currently, most teachers in Kindergarten to Grade 3 are Inuit, because classes are taught in Inuktitut, but the transition to English and French after Grade 4 is difficult for many students, the report revealed.

Some students are never able to catch up in their studies in a second language, "jeopardizing their success at the secondary level," the ombudsman reported.

No communication with government

​The report is critical of the hands-off approach the government's department of education has taken towards students in Nunavik.

"We need to reach a balance between colonialism and laissez-faire," Dussault said.

No communication results in misunderstanding, which results in neglect.- Kativik Ilisarniliriniq President Robert Watt

Unlike what it demands of other school boards in Quebec, the government does not have statistics for teacher qualifications, student attendance or programs for students with special needs, making it impossible to identify and solve problems, the ombudsman observed.

Watt said his school board is setting up computer systems in half of the communities it serves to collect that information, "so we could provide adequate data that's up to date to the ministry, so the ministry and the Kativik School Board can find solutions together."

Robert Watt, president of Kativik Ilisarniliriniq, said he has already seen an improvement in the province's input to address the region's high drop-out rates. (Kativik Ilisarniliriniq)

Watt said prior to his nomination as president in December 2017, "there was no communication happening between the ministry and KI."

"No communication results in misunderstanding, which results in neglect," Watt said. 

Requests to implement post-secondary education programs, to which graduates currently don't have access to, were also ignored.

Watt said the Ombudsman's investigation led to immediate improvement in KI's relations with the ministry of education.

"It was very clear that the ministry wanted to make sure that this never happens again."

In an e-mail to CBC, the ministry wrote it "will actively seek out solutions to implement the recommendations in this report, in collaboration with the Kativik School Board."

The ministry wrote it would "support KI in its efforts to improve educational programs in Nunavik, to increase students' success rates."

The Kativik School Board is responsible for schools in 14 communities in Quebec's Nunavik region. (Kativik School Board)

A committee is being set up specifically to address the ombudsman's recommendations, and it is to submit a work plan to the ombudsman by Feb. 15, 2019, in collaboration with the Department of Aboriginal Affairs.

Watt said he sees this as an opportunity to have several stakeholders sitting at one roundtable to resolve longstanding problems.

"It only makes sense," he said. "We'll be able to tackle education holistically."

With files from Catou Mackinnon and CBC's Breakaway