Features / First Nations education

Learning with less: Chronic shortages plague Canada’s First Nations schools

For administrators at on-reserve schools, every day is a juggling act.

“It’s a constant struggle finding enough money for everything,” says Pauline McKay, director and principal of the Sturgeon Lake Central School, which serves the Sturgeon Lake First Nation about 55 kilometres northwest of Prince Albert.

But some are optimistic that the years ahead will be different.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is promising $1.9 billion over seven years in the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act. The funding is set to kick in next year.

“We have one phys-ed teacher for all of our 500 kids,” says McKay, providing an example of the chronic shortages. “There’s always a lack of staff.”

Photo Gallery

  • Jacob Morgan/Metro

    Pauline McKay, principal of the Sturgeon Lake Central School, says it's a constant struggle finding enough money for everything.

  • Jacob Morgan/Metro

    Marlene Nicholls is the principal of the Bernard Constant Community School in James Smith First Nation. She says her school only gets $4,340 per student per year.

  • Jacob Morgan/Metro

    Internet connectivity at many on-reserve schools is painfully slow. Caleb Ermine, a teaching assistant at the Sturgeon Lake Central School, says his students can't watch full videos on YouTube and many of the machines are missing speakers and mouses.

  • Jacob Morgan/Metro

    McKay said that she has two smart boards in her school, but is unable to use them without a high-speed Internet connection.

  • Morgan Modjeski/Metro

    This computer is just one piece of obsolete technology in use at the Sturgeon Lake Central School.

  • Morgan Modjeski/Metro

    Many on-reserve schools are in bad need of structural repairs.

  • Jacob Morgan/Metro

    A hole in a wall at the Bernard Constant Community School covered up with masking tape.

  • Jacob Morgan/Metro

    The Bernard Constant Community School in James Smith First Nation is badly in need of structural repairs.

  • Morgan Modjeski/Metro

    A 1988 Canadian World Almance is one of the out-of-date books seen at this school library.

  • Jacob Morgan/Metro

    While some parts of the playground at the Sturgeon Lake Central School are in working order, others are in need of repair.

  • Jacob Morgan/Metro

    Pauline McKay, director and principal of the Sturgeon Lake Central School, was unable to use her wood shop for five years due to a lack of funding to hire a teacher. She now has a new math instructor who is also trained as a journeyman carpentar. “Other than that, it would remain empty,” she said.

  • Jacob Morgan/Metro

    A school crossing sign by a rural road on the James Smith First Nation.

In most of the country, First Nations education is is funded through the federal government, whereas mainstream public schools receive funding through the province. McKay said that Sturgeon Lake gets $6,500 per student per year.

By comparison, the provincial government provided more than $10,000 per student to public and Catholic divisions in the North Battleford, Sask. area, and around $17,000 to the French board, according to a 2013 study from educational consultant R. J. Kowalchuk.

That discrepancy means reduced course offerings. McKay envies how provincial schools are able to enjoy such luxuries as drama and music.

“For extras we have phys-ed and we’ve got Cree,” McKay says. “That’s it.”

All this hasn’t stopped McKay and others at the school from trying to produce graduates out of children deprived of educational resources. McKay designed her own schedule so students can focus their efforts on one course at a time each month.

At James Smith Cree Nation, roughly 65 kilometres from Prince Albert, the situation is even worse.

Principal Marlene Nicholls says her school ends up with just $4,340 per student. Staff can’t even afford to call in sick.

“This year we weren’t able to hire substitute teachers,” she says.

During the five-plus years Nicholls has been with the school, she hasn’t once been able to purchase a new vehicle. Luckily, she has an instructor who can double as a mechanic.

“In the public school system, you have to have (your vehicles) inspected,” she says. “We try our best to adhere to those rules and policies, but there’s no money for that.”

What Nicholls does have is a retention worker, and a community liaison to keep tabs on troubled students. And that helps keep kids in the classroom.

“If a teacher says, ‘This kid is missing,’ then they go and find out what’s happening,” she says. “They also have some training in addictions.”

Each of these social workers earns only $19,000 a year.

The new Conservative initiative for First Nations education is expected to start injecting increased funding in 2016. So the question for those on the ground is not only whether it will be enough, but also whether it will be soon enough.

“I don’t think people really believe what it’s like in the reserve,” McKay says.