First Nations schools watching teacher strike closely

On an early June 2 morning at Kopahawakenum Elementary School, Danene King's Grade 3 class enjoys quiet time for reading before the morning announcements.

By Ben Ingram

With Saskatchewan’s teachers set to reach a new agreement with the province, educators in First Nations communities have been keeping a watchful eye over the dispute.

Meadow Lake region’s First Nations administrators said they’ve found a lack of funding can make it difficult to ensure their staff are paid at a competitive level, running the risk of losing their teachers to the provincial system.

“To say that the Flying Dust has a big pot of funding comparable to the town of Meadow Lake is just unrealistic,” education manager Rico Mirasty said.

For Kopahawakenum Elementary School, Mirasty said it can be especially challenging. A small facility that provides kindergarten to grade four education, the difficulty is retaining teachers as they gain experience and pay.

“We try to balance our school with experienced teachers and new teachers,” Mirasty said. “We like to try and build new teaching staff, to work with our community.”

Mirasty said he is concerned about what a raise for provincial teachers could mean for First Nations communities like Flying Dust, where he says it’s already difficult to pay teachers at a comparable level.

“Given that we have a limited budget right now, yes I am concerned,” he said.

“Myself, being a parent, I support the teachers. If there are salary concerns that teachers have in Meadow Lake, I’d like to see them move up,” Mirasty said.

But while First Nations teachers are funded by the federal government, it can be a challenge keeping up with rising costs.

“The cost of living is getting so demanding right now and that’s affecting First Nation teachers and staff, as well as non-First Nation teachers,” he said.

At Flying Dust, teachers are given one-year contracts based on available funding. Coming up with the money to pay them has already been difficult, with salaries there tending to lag behind the better pay rates of the province.

Director of education for the Meadow Lake Tribal Council, Judy Okanee, said the problem is one  that extends beyond the borders of Flying Dust.

“It hasn’t been looked at for years, I don’t know why,” she said, describing her “watch and wait” attitude regarding the current dispute between the teachers and the provincial government.

“We’re always playing catchup and we don’t get the same resources that the province does,” she said.

According to Okanee, administrators are regularly faced with the difficulty of having to juggle funding for school programs and salaries, often having to make hard choices between giving money to the schools and affording experience-based raises for their staff.

“It’s keeping the ones we have, once they reach that upper limit,” she explained. “Making those kind of decisions to let them go if we have to, that’s really hard on the systems, the boards of education and also the students.”

Okanee said their concerns are discussed often at both the band and tribal council levels.
“We’ve become very ingenious when it comes to keeping our teachers,” she said. “Our kids deserve the best, just like any other children, so we try really hard.”

A 15 per cent cut to the funding of the newly-dubbed Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs could also mean added difficulties in educational funding for First Nations communities like those near Meadow Lake.

“Every time you turn around, you’re having a hard time catching up or keeping equal to what can be offered,” Okanee said.

The Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation recently accepted mediation, meaning a new contract for the province’s teachers could be within reach.

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