The strike votes have been counted and it seems Ontario teachers are, once again, seriously considering taking to the picket lines.
Depending on who you ask, this time the key issue is about new legislation passed that cuts sick days, removed teachers’ right to strike and imposes a two-year wage freeze. For some in the education community, unhappiness about a pay freeze seems a little strange as they have effectively been working with a one for over two decades.
“First Nation teachers would gladly get what the teachers have now because there’s such a big difference in the grid,” said Steve General, education director of the Shawanaga First Nation.
General has been involved in First Nation education for the past 22 years in a myriad of positions that range from teacher, to principal to his current position as education director. He has spent roughly 10 years collecting information on the compensation teachers receive when working in First Nation or provincial schools. He recently released his findings in a report and believes it creates a pretty clear picture of the value given to aboriginal students.
Teachers, both provincial and usually First Nation, have their salary determined by where they fall on a grid. What the grid looks like is determined by which board you work for, whether you’re an elementary or secondary school teacher and a variety of other factors.
Ideally, a teacher wants to be moving down and to the right of their grid as the salary increases as they head in that direction. This is accomplished by gaining more seniority and meeting a series of educational requirements.
The difference between the grids most First Nation teachers are on and the grids provincial teachers use is quite dramatic, according to General. At the highest salary point, the difference is typically around $40,000.
“What are First Nations teachers? To me, they’re like workers in a foreign sweatshop somewhere in Thailand being paid a little bit to make sweaters,” said General.
“When I look at that, something is not right here about what they get paid and how they get paid.”
General believes by paying teachers far less than what they would get in the provincial system, it creates a situation where high teacher turnover is inevitable. He sees it as one of several causes that have led to lower academic performance in First Nation schools.
As someone who has had a chance to visit many First Nation schools, including fly-ins up north, General said it’s pretty clear that most students don’t have a chance when they move from a First Nation school to a provincial school.
“When I go there and see where the kids are at academically, there’s a reason for it. Lack of resources, high teacher turnover, instability. Not every answer is funding, but it’s a big part,” said General.
In creating the report, General collected the grids for teachers across Ontario as well as the grids from several decades into the past. He said most First Nations pay their teachers around what provincial teachers were getting in the late 80s.
Teacher salaries on a First Nation are determined differently then they are in provincial schools. Money is distributed to the various First Nations from the government around the country who are then able to distribute the funds as they see fit and to do things like set the salary level of teachers in band-operated schools. How much each First Nation receives and the involvement, or lack of involvement, of First Nation representation in the budget setting process has long been a source of controversy.
Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada currently invests around $1.4 billion supporting the elementary and secondary education of approximately 118,000 First Nation students across the country.
Michelle Perron, a spokesperson with Aboriginal Affairs, said equity in pay between provincial and First Nation teachers is crucial for better education, but it would need to come alongside other changes.
“Comparable funding for education, which could include matching teachers’ salaries, is an important component for improving the educational outcomes of First Nations students. However, comparable funding needs to be accompanied by systemic changes, including structural reforms,” Perron said.
On February 8, the National Panel on First Nation Elementary and Secondary Education, a panel mandated to develop options to improve First Nation education, presented its final report to the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations and the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs. The government and assembly are currently reviewing the recommendations.
The money dispensed to First Nation schools varies depending on a wide range of factors that including school size and the remoteness of the location. However, all funding arrangements with the government come with a requirement that the First Nation deliver education that is comparable to that delivered in a provincial school.
“First Nation communities vary in terms of student population, geographic location, socio-economic conditions and remoteness. All of these factors influence costs and must be considered when setting school budgets,” said Perron.