‘Feels like a dictatorship’; Contract talks with teachers break down on Sagkeeng First Nation

“It feels like a dictatorship.”

Nearly a dozen teachers weren’t in school on a Manitoba First Nation Monday after contract talks broke down.

“There’s been scare tactics – intimidation and bullying,” said Leila Spiers, part of a group that met with APTN at a restaurant outside Sagkeeng First Nation, which is about 120 kilometres north of Winnipeg.

“We were told to sign or lose our jobs.”

The 50 teachers started the school year without a contract, said Spiers, who’s been teaching Grade 2 for nine years.

“We usually sign these in May.”

Spiers said the contracts were negotiated with a director of education, who works for the band. There is no school board.

“Things have been building up and building up and building up,” added Jeff Courchene, a guidance counsellor who also drives a school bus.

“There seems to be a lack of faith here.”

School staffers Leila Speirs (left), Richard Stevens and Bernice Courchene. (Kathleen Martens/APTN)

The teachers, who are responsible for 800 students in two schools, say they’ve been bullied online and in person as news of the work stoppage leaked out.

“We were promised raises and funding for school supplies but nothing came of it,” added Richard Stevens, a home-school liaison worker.

“Most of the staff didn’t get a raise in pay.”

But Chief Derrick Henderson disagreed, noting being a teacher was “pretty lucrative.”

He confirmed a public meeting was scheduled for Tuesday night to give the band’s side of the issue.

“There is no dispute,” he added, declining to provide more information.

“I’m not sure what the problem is.”

The group acknowledged an average salary of $65,000 for senior teachers sounded high but was substantially less than what off-reserve teachers made.

“In the school division next to us that jumps to $89,000,” noted Spiers.

The group said band constables were called Friday when they refused to sign the contracts and demanded to meet with chief and council.

But they couldn’t sign, they said, because some clauses were removed– like planning and curriculum guides – while others were added – like making it mandatory for teachers to send their own children to band schools.

“It feels like a dictatorship,” added Spiers, one of the few teachers who’s not from the community.

“It’s been used before; it’s been said before,” added Grade 2 teacher Bernice Courchene.

“You’re replaceable.”

Public affairs facilitator, Sam Turenne, of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society (MTS) wasn’t surprised to hear of the conflict.

She said MTS represents most teachers in Manitoba but only on two First Nations. In the past, some bands have refused to negotiate with the union.

She said MTS would meet with Sagkeeng teachers if they initiated contact.

Long-time teacher Ursula Bruyere said a past attempt to unionize fell apart and they’d been warned not to try it again.

“We’ll be fired,” she said.

Leila Spiers (centre) goes over contract problems as Bernice Courchene (left) and Peyton Sabiston (right) look on. (Kathleen Martens/APTN)

It was obvious the teachers were not happy. Some were in tears as they talked about the toll the conflict was having.

Other worried aloud about their students.

“I’m here to support the teachers,” added parent Daphne Starr, whose son was recently diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum

“My son needs the structure of school.”

Yet the special needs program has been changed without notice , the teachers said, and they regularly use their own money to buy school supplies.

Stevens said they were given “an ultimatum” to sign the contracts “within 24 hours or their jobs would be terminated immediately.”

He said this year the federal government increased funding for programs, school supplies and teacher wages. And the band promised some new figures.

But in the end, their contracts didn’t include the higher numbers.

“They’re getting a lot of money but we’re not seeing it in the classroom,” he said.

A notice circulated in the community said school would be cancelled Monday but classes went ahead – some supervised by community members.

Peyton Sabiston, an educational assistant, said that wasn’t a good because those adults didn’t have criminal background checks.

In the meantime, Stevens was expecting more than eight teachers to meet at the restaurant but said some bowed to “fear” instead.

APTN asked Indigenous Services Canada for a breakdown of educational funding for Sagkeeng. The information didn’t arrive before this story was published.

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