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The long road fostering educational culture

Arresting absenteeism is a key starting point in making northern schools work for locals, says Mary Simon, chair of the National Committee on Inuit Education.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

This is part of The North, a Globe investigation of unprecedented change, to the climate, culture and politics of Canada's last frontier. Join the conversation with #GlobeNorth

Five minutes after the morning bell, Doris Boase pulls on a snowsuit, fires up her snow machine and roars through the tiny town of Hopedale, Labrador. The 35-year-old school liaison officer is hunting for students who aren't in class, knocking on doors of parents who didn't answer the phone when she called to check on absentees. After lunch, if another round of kids is missing, it's the same routine.

"If students aren't in class and there's no answer at home, I'll call the parents at work and get permission to go into the house and wake the kids up," Ms. Boase said. "I'm there to take them to school and they know I'm not going to leave without them."

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Hopedale, population 650, is an exception: Thanks to concerted outreach efforts by the local school, student attendance has jumped to 90 per cent from 50 per cent over the past decade. But that's where school absenteeism still hovers across much of the North, at 50 per cent – while 75 per cent of Inuit students never finish high school. "Our children are asking, 'Why is the system failing us?'" said Mary Simon, chair of the National Committee on Inuit Education.

There are undeniable systemic issues: poor teacher retention, a dearth of native educators, lack of a Northern university. But the Inuit community, Ms. Simon says, can take immediate action to address education problems, and arresting absenteeism is No. 1. "The fact is, a lot of children aren't getting the support they need from the community to stay in school," she said.

Ms. Simon helped develop the National Strategy on Inuit Education, launched in 2011 and focused on parent mobilization. Without it, she says, parents' attitudes toward education will continue to be defined by their experiences with the residential school system. "Parents that went to residential school often see education in a negative light," she said. "And if there is no communication between parents and the school, it's easier for children to drop out."

It would also help if schools retained good teachers. Originally from Upper Island Cove, Nfld., Dean Coombs found jobs in short supply when he graduated from university, but they were plentiful in the North. His teaching career began in half-empty classrooms in Hopedale in northern Labrador. A year later, when his homesick peers headed south, Mr. Coombs stayed. Twenty-three years later, he's still in Hopedale.

"There were years when every teacher in the school left," said Mr. Coombs, now principal. "But I stuck around, then a few more started staying around." Today, the Hopedale school hasn't lost a single teacher in three years and half its educators are Inuit.

The principal's approach is simple: involve parents. "I have never met a parent who didn't want more for their children," said Mr. Coombs, who makes a point of getting into the community, dropping in on parents for a tea, to share a cigarette or even an evening meal.

The school also hosts community feasts, not just on holidays, but to celebrate things such as the 100th day of school, Remembrance Day and the spring carnival. "Any excuse to get parents involved and into the school," he said. He has Grade 8 kids who have never missed a day of school. When a young grad shot a polar bear, Mr. Coombs had it stuffed and put in the school lobby. "Our role models are people from around Hopedale, not people like Terry Fox," he said. "We take pride in our community."

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But government help is needed, educators say. The federal government's recently proposed First Nation Education Act – a controversial plan to overhaul education on First Nations reserves across the country – doesn't include Inuit communities, but the energy behind it hasn't gone unnoticed by Inuit leaders. They've been asking the federal government to help execute their own homegrown national strategy since 2011.

"To date, the government has been unwilling to help implement this strategy," Ms. Simon said. "There should be a big pot of money for this, but there's not." Ms. Simon finds herself lobbying industry, corporate sponsors and local governments to scrape together enough money to run parental-engagement pilot projects in a handful of Inuit communities.

The long-term vision of the Inuit strategy is to have Inuit kids fill the positions that a resource boom promises to bring to the North, including those jobs that require university training. "We're the only circumpolar country without a northern university," Ms. Simon said. "Having postsecondary opportunities at home could transform higher education in the North." A Northern university, the theory goes, would engage parents, create an incentive to stay in school, cut costs for students who would otherwise be forced to move south for higher education – and turn out graduates who would become the next northern workforce.

To do that, local schools need to keep teachers. Ms. Simon blames an unequal playing field. Teachers moving north for work are offered housing and a northern living allowance on top of their salary, she says – perks that aren't provided to Inuit teachers who already live in the North. "You also need doers," she said. "You need to find people who are the glue – local people interested in being teachers who are passionate about being role models."

In the absence of changes, many parents feel they have no choice but to send their kids south. Jobie Tukkiapik, president of Mativik Corp., an organization protecting the rights and financial interests of Inuit land claims in northern Quebec, knows this first-hand: His daughter left her isolated community of Kuujjuaq, Nunavik, to head south for high school. "She was worried about falling behind," said Mr. Tukkiapik, who remembers years when the local school lost teachers mid-term and couldn't find replacements for months.

The Inuit strategy envisions a wide-scale posters-and-awareness campaign focused on the importance of education. But there is no replacement for what Mr. Coombs and his team do – knocking on doors, getting to know people. McGill University psychology professor Donald Taylor, who has spent the past decade doing community-based education research in the North, says the people paying attention to media campaigns have already bought into the importance of education. "You need to reach the parents living in party houses; you have to reach the young parents who just turned 15; you have to reach everyone," he said.

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Dr. Taylor, like Mr. Coombs, favours a simple approach: Go start a conversation. "It's a long, slow process," he said. "And there are no shortcuts."

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