'Why is there no uproar?' Marten Falls First Nation chief criticizes slow response on teacher housing
Community declared a state of emergency in late January and school remains closed nearly 2 months later
The chief of Marten Falls First Nation says an education state of emergency declared at the end of January resulted in an intervention from the federal government, but two months later, children are still not back in school.
Bruce Achneepineskum said children there have now been absent from the classrooms of Henry Coaster Memorial School for more than 160 days due to a lack of housing for teachers in the northern Ontario community.
Following the emergency declaration on Jan. 26, the government contacted the community and arranged to provide money for a new housing complex while also shipping modular homes on the winter road, he said.
"That's something positive, but why did we have to resort to making an emergency press statement in order for our children to actually receive those kinds of services?" Achneepineskum asked. "If that happened in any place in Ontario and in Canada, there'd be an uproar. But why is there no uproar when our First Nations people are put in situations like that?
"The relationship between the First Nations and Canada has to change."
Virtual learning not yet an option
Warm weather could still delay the delivery of the modular housing units as it threatens winter road conditions, he said.
The community only gained access to high-speed internet service through Starlink less than two months ago. There is currently no virtual learning system for elementary students, said Sharon Nate, executive director of education for Matawa First Nations Management.
Matawa is sending homework kits to the community, she said.
"But that's all we can do, because our staff, they only go up there for a couple of days at a time."
Marten Falls decommissioned its teachers' residences in 1999 after they fell into disrepair. Teachers had since been housed in extra suites in a seniors' complex, the chief explained to CBC News in January.
However, that facility is now full.
Issue 1st raised 20 years ago
Former chief Eli Moonias wrote to the government 20 years ago to highlight the shortage of accommodations for teachers in the community, Achneepineskum said.
"In all that time, there's been no movement at all," he said.
In a Thursday statement, a spokesperson for Indigenous Services Canada said officials have been meeting multiple times a week with community leadership.
The statement said the department is working "to get students back into the school, find alternative learning opportunities so that student education is not further interrupted, as well as to get accommodation in place for teachers so they agree to work in Marten Falls."
As well, the government said three of the modular housing units are expected to be sent this week and the majority of building materials for a four-plex have arrived.
Why did we have to resort to making an emergency press statement in order for our children to actually receive those kinds of services?- Bruce Achneepineskum
Nate, meanwhile, said she believes all Matawa communities are facing challenges housing teachers because of the government funding formula for teacher accommodations.
Funding formula not keeping up with need
"Say if you have a school that has 100 students, it will provide housing for maybe two of those teachers, or even four of those teachers with two units where they have to live together," she said.
"Most often, these teachers don't know each other, so they're not really keen on living with each other."
Communities lose out on good-quality teachers because of this, said Nate, who spent 10 years as the education director in her home community of Eabametoong, and they sometimes find themselves trying to recruit couples in order to attract teachers who won't mind living together.
The funding formula also fails to take into account the needs of a modern education system, Nate said, where a multitude of teachers are needed to teach subjects such as language, technology and woodworking, in addition to core subjects, such as math and science.