School's back in Nunavut, but teachers remain in short supply

·4 min read
The Jimmy Hikok Ilihakvik Elementary School in Kugluktuk, Nunavut. Close to 10 per cent of teaching positions in the territory were unfilled at the start of the 2022 school year.  (Hilary Bird/CBC - image credit)
The Jimmy Hikok Ilihakvik Elementary School in Kugluktuk, Nunavut. Close to 10 per cent of teaching positions in the territory were unfilled at the start of the 2022 school year. (Hilary Bird/CBC - image credit)

By the end of this week all Nunavut schools will be open and students should be back in classes territory-wide.

But, as of the end of last week, Nunavut was still short 94.5 teachers, leaving some communities strapped for teachers.

The Government of Nunavut said Monday that as of Aug. 23 the vacancies by region stood at 21 in the Kivalliq, 7.5 in the Kitikmeot, and 66 in the Qikiqtani.

That was down from 105 in the three regions the previous week, said the education department's spokesperson, Sandi Chan, although 105 was the current number of vacancies cited Friday by Justin Matchett, president of the Nunavut Teachers Association, the union that represents teachers throughout the territory.

"Close to 10 per cent of our teaching memberships are vacant at the start of the year," Matchett said.

This could put Nunavut at the top of Canada with respect to the percentage of unfilled teaching jobs, he said.

A look at the teacher recruitment site used by the Government of Nunavut shows, for example, that Igloolik, which has three schools, still had multiple positions vacant Monday.

While Matchett can cite the reasons — such as a lack of housing, COVID fatigue, violence in the classrooms and the cost of living — that discourage teachers from coming to Nunavut, he said it's time to put a more positive face on teaching in the territory.

"It's easy for me in my position to throw the government under the bus, but this time, the more I am talking to other associations across Canada, everybody's hurting, and almost every jurisdiction is starting short of staff," he said.

One problem is that media coverage about Nunavut is not always favourable, Matchett said.

"There are realities to it," he said. "But when there's violence in schools down south, it doesn't necessarily represent the entire province, while in the schools in Nunavut it kind of represents the entire territory."

Matchett said Nunavut is a "great place."

"I have spent the last 13 years here and raised my kids here. I think we need do a better job of promoting the positive aspects of Nunavut and what we can do to enrich ourselves and learn about the culture."

Sima Sahar Zerehi/CBC
Sima Sahar Zerehi/CBC

That being said, the cost of living is high even when factoring in the new collective agreement, which gave teachers raises over four years.

"We had the biggest raise in the country but when we look at inflation we're probably making a bit less than we were a couple of years ago," Matchett said.

But Matchett said he doesn't "want to play the blame game."

"We want to find solutions to move us forward," he said. "When there is such a shortage everywhere, as a territory we have to do a better job or promoting ourselves and making our territory an attractive place."

Iqaluit 'blessed' with teachers

To see what works in Nunavut, a look at the situation in Iqaluit is revealing.

"We are blessed in that we have little turnover. We have teachers who are dedicated to this community and to their students," said Doug Workman, who chairs the Iqaluit District Education Authority (IDEA), which in partnership with regional school operations and school staff, is responsible for deciding how education is administered in the city.

Right now, among Iqaluit's four schools, only one position is "maybe" still waiting to be filled, he said.

Iqaluit's housing market is a draw.

"We have many teachers who have been in the communities and they want to settle down and they want to buy a house," Workman said. "They are making a commitment. And they believe that when they go, they will be able to sell. Here, there's actually a market."

In the smaller communities people have to share lodgings. If they buy a house, it might not resell easily, he said.

Still, the Iqaluit District Education Authority is reaching out on social media to recruit student support assistants and substitute teachers.

"Substitute Teachers and Substitute Student Support Assistants are urgently needed in our schools," reads a Monday Facebook post from the IDEA.

The Department of Education declined a request for an interview.