First Nations schools face unique challenges preparing for fall opening

Saskatchewan First Nations school officials say they've faced overcrowding and underfunding for years, making it even harder to plan for a safe opening in September in the shadow of COVID-19, but that they also have advantages.

Questions remain over funding for buses, masks, cleaning supplies, says director

University of Saskatchewan Indian Teacher Education Program director Chris Scribe says First Nations school officials face unique issues preparing for the upcoming school year. (Matt Garand/CBC)

Saskatchewan First Nations school officials say they've faced overcrowding and underfunding for years, making it even harder to plan for a safe opening in September in the shadow of COVID-19.

But they also say that First Nations have advantages, including a long tradition of blending the standard provincial curriculum with land-based, outdoor education.

CBC reporter Jason Warick spoke with Chris Scribe, director of the Indian Teacher Education Program at the University of Saskatchewan.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

CBC: What are the challenges facing First Nations schools in the province?

Scribe: Just like schools everywhere, they're looking at making sure the places are safe.

But something unique is also happening. A lot of the schools are working to re-establish their relationship with the land, taking education outside the four walls of the classroom and really connecting to what it means to educate for Indigenous people.

Everybody's at ground zero right now. It's the starting point, unprecedented times. It's an opportunity for schools to re-establish those powerful relationships we've had for thousands of years on this territory.

Pheasant Rump Nakota First Nation medicine teacher Temp Sheppard teaching a youth how and when to cut a red willow using land-based, Indigenous language instruction. (Submitted by Juanita McArthur-Big Eagle)

When you talk about land-based education, what are some examples?

There are connections to sacred spaces and places, connections to the rivers and lakes. There are medicines there, there are connection points.

These places remind us and teach us about the history that we can't necessarily get inside of a classroom. I was just up visiting a friend of mine in Molanosa (near La Ronge), a 15-minute boat ride out to his land, talking about living off grid, talking about connections to his territory, his connections to his family.

That covers some of the advantages. First Nations leaders say their schools also face disadvantages. Can you talk about that?

One of the biggest ones is transportation. They need buses. It's a huge part of our schooling.

The bus system is based on federal funding formulas. We don't know how that's going to work. Will there be support?

Some are talking about not even opening. Others are talking about soft openings. Each Nation makes their own decisions. It's different from the province.

An elder instructs a student on how to make a birchbark basket used to winnow the wild rice as part of a land-based pilot program between Lakehead University and Biitigong Nishnaabeg. (Ron Desmoulins/CBC)

Are there other funding issues?

Funding is always an issue. This is adding extra cost to an already stretched system of education.

How do we make sure all of our students have masks, sanitizer, soap, and even running water? All of these things are piling on to our schools and our school boards of our Nations.

The number one conversation is keeping kids safe, but we also have a responsibility to educate.

How do you think Saskatchewan First Nations students, parents and staff are feeling about things at the moment?

We've faced pandemics like this in the past. We are a resilient people. We come together in times of crisis.

I'm seeing parents and teachers really informing themselves about what they can do for the community. That's built into our DNA — adapting and surviving in this territory. Our number one job is making sure our kids are safe.