Working in the most northern community in Ontario isn’t for everyone, but for Mikail-Kaii Newby, connecting with Teach For Canada presented the opportunity for him to make a meaningful difference in young people’s lives.
“Coming out of Grade 12, I thought Canada was this perfect country. But in a second-year university course on Ontario politics, one guest speaker, a Chief from an Ontario First Nation, changed my world,” says Newby, who is now a mentor-teacher with Keewaytinook Internet High School (KiHS) in Fort Severn First Nation.
After discovering his country’s dark history with residential schools, Newby took several courses and read everything he could find on the history of Indigenous peoples in Canada. He was determined to teach his students the true history of Canada’s relations with its Indigenous peoples to help bring about change until he encountered Teach For Canada at a job fair convention.
“That’s the reason I took this job,” says Newby, who started a teaching assignment with Teach For Canada fresh out of teachers college in 2019.
The Indigenous-led non-profit organization, which was established in 2015, partners with 23 First Nations in Northern Ontario and Manitoba to recruit, prepare, and support committed teachers, while helping to develop additional program streams to meet the needs of the community.
At the heart of the organization is the desire to help improve education and learning outcomes for First Nations students. Some 7,000 youth have benefited from the program since its inception. In the north, twin challenges of teacher supply and turnover compound historical injustices and systemic inequities to produce a statistical education gap between First Nations and non-First Nations communities. Less than half (44.8%) of First Nations young adults living on reserve graduate from high school, compared to 88% of other Canadians, data from Indigenous Services Canada shows.
One of the greatest barriers to graduating that First Nations learners face is the high teacher turnover rate. Teach For Canada strives to offset this with a two-week Summer Enrichment program to prepare teachers heading to the north to take on the dual responsibilities of providing an academic foundation in an environment that embodies the culture and language of the community. In turn, the teachers make a good-faith agreement to stay in the community for two years and can tap into peer and professional support networks to help them succeed.
Newby admits that moving to Fort Severn First Nation — a fly-in community of about 500 people, on the Severn River where it empties into Hudson Bay — to teach at KiHS was out of his comfort zone. Growing up in the Greater Toronto Area, he hadn’t been further north than Barrie, let alone lived in such a remote, cold environment far from his family. To help with that adjustment, Teach For Canada provides access to counselling services and the community of a network of northern teachers.
As Teach For Canada looks to expand its reach across Canada — starting with First Nations communities in Alberta and Saskatchewan — Scotiabank is renewing its commitment to the organization with new funding of $750,000 over three years to support recruitment and retention of teachers in remote First Nations schools. The partnership is part of ScotiaRISE, the Bank’s 10-year, $500-million initiative to promote economic resilience among disadvantaged groups.
“We are pleased to partner with Teach for Canada to support the recruitment and training of teachers committed to providing learning for Indigenous students living in remote northern communities and enabling youth to successfully plan for their futures,” said Meigan Terry, Senior Vice President and Chief Sustainability, Social Impact and Communications Officer at Scotiabank.
“[The funding] means we will be able to reach a lot more First Nations,” said Shardae Fortier, Vice President of Programs at Teach For Canada. “We would love to be able to make Teach For Canada a truly national program.”
Fortier, who is Anishinaabe and a member of the Red Rock Indian Band in Northwestern Ontario, knows firsthand what the outcomes for First Nations students in the North can be. In the course of getting her law degree, Fortier articled with the firm representing the Nishnawbe Aski Nation at the 2015-16 inquest into the death of seven students who died between 2000 and 2011 in Thunder Bay, Ont. after having to leave their communities to attend high school. In most northern First Nations, schools only go to Grade 8, forcing students to move to Thunder Bay, Sioux Lookout, or Dryden to complete high school.
“That inquest fuelled my commitment to reduce educational inequality between First Nations federal schools and the public school system,” Fortier said.
Due to the education gap that northern First Nations students face, they are already learning at a level two years behind the rest of the province. Fortier worries that the drop in attendance Teach For Canada has seen since COVID-19 lockdowns could set them back further. She did note, however, that where there is Teach For Canada support and programming, attendance has not had as big a drop.
In his role at KiHS, Newby helps students navigate through science, math, history and literature to complete their Ontario Secondary School Diplomas online. The school offers students access to three Ontario-accredited course streams — academic, applied, and locally developed — a choice that isn’t always available to Indigenous students leaving their communities.
KiHS opened in 2000 at the request of the chiefs of Keewaytinook Okimakanak (Oji-Cree for Northern Chiefs Tribal Council) so that youth would not have to leave their communities to attend high school away from home.
Newby is also concerned about low attendance. “My first year, we had 50 students registered, which I was told was a lot. But of the 50, only 10 or so would show up to the classroom.” Eventually, he came to understand that lack of attendance can stem from generational trauma: “It could be that they have lost a family member or things at home are bad,” Newby said.
Low attendance, combined with the high turnover rate of elementary school teachers has led to many students not having the literacy and logic skills expected by Grade 9. “I’m expected to be helping them with Shakespeare, but they lack basic grammar,” Newby said. “You have to forget the traditional curriculum and go back to basics and ensure everyone has a consistent level of knowledge, then slowly add in the high school curriculum.”
We are pleased to partner with Teach for Canada to support the recruitment and training of teachers committed to providing learning for Indigenous students living in remote northern communities and enabling youth to successfully plan for their futures.
Robin Chamney, the Principal at Wasaho Cree Nation School and a member of Teach For Canada’s Advisory Council, agreed that consistency would help close the education gap for First Nations students. “You have to build trust with the students and the community. The communities are very protective about their children,” she said.
Chamney, who has been at the school for five years, has seen 15 teachers come and go in that time, not all from Teach For Canada. “That’s really hard on the kids. When we return from March break, they are already starting to ask if we are coming back next year.”
While it is difficult to measure success by student engagement, especially after pandemic disruptions, Teach For Canada is seeing teacher retention go up. Fortier said that on average 89% of teachers finish their first year, and 67% of them go on to start their second year with a 95% finish rate, while 98% or more of teachers who pass the two-year mark tend to stick around for a while.
Last year, Teach For Canada partnered with Trent University’s School of Education, which offers an Indigenous Bachelor of Education, to offer practicums to students in their final year. Two candidates took up the offer and Teach For Canada hopes to have even more engagement this year.
“Our Northern Practicum program gives prospective teachers three to seven weeks’ experience with a First Nation so they can decide if it’s the right career move for them,” Fortier said.
Longer term, Teach For Canada hopes to inspire students to see themselves as teachers in their own community and become certified, eliminating the need for external recruitment, she said.
“Ultimately, education is the way forward for our communities. We want to see First Nations have stable and effective schools, led and staffed by local community members, and ensure that Indigenous students have access to high-quality education in their home community.”
Read the French version here.