80% of Nunavut teachers experienced violence this year, new study says

Nunavut's teachers union says 90 per cent of its members witnessed some form of violence in the territory's schools this year, while more than 83 per cent experienced it first hand.

The figures come from a survey conducted by the Nunavut Teachers' Association (NTA) during a two-week span in May. The union had 218 of its members respond to it — about a 30 per cent response rate — which the union says translates to a five per cent margin for error.

"If any other department in Nunavut did a survey like this and the results came back that 90 per cent were witnessing violence, they would probably shut the department down," said union president Justin Matchett, who shared the results with CBC News.

"Teachers need to come to work and feel comfortable and safe in their role. And they can't do their job effectively when they're dealing with these types of situations."

Matchett said teachers want enhanced training from the government, and more resources to deal with different types of situations.

"We need to feel safe and comfortable and prepared in our jobs," he said.

"So what is the next step? Verbal de-escalation is not always going to work. And unfortunately, we've had teachers hiding in classrooms because they're being attacked. And that's not acceptable."

He also called on the department of education to have a more holistic approach to supporting students, pointing specifically at Nunavut's curriculum.

"We have an outdated health curriculum that we use in Nunavut. It's embarrassing. And we need an updated health curriculum with a focus on mental health so that can be a priority in the school."

Violence still being underreported

Matchett said the union launched the study because it suspected violence was continuing to go largely underreported in schools.

"From what we're seeing, and the response in our survey, is that over 50 per cent of our members have told us that they're not reporting it," he said.

In 2022, Nunavut's department of education launched its long-awaited school violence tracking system — an online reporting tool which requires educators, staff and students to report incidents as they arise.

The system was nine years in the making and its framework was largely built from a spreadsheet created by CBC News as part of its 2021 investigation into school violence in Nunavut, which marked the first time data on school violence had ever been compiled in the territory.

But in its inaugural year, the system was largely underutilized, logging only 362 incidents of violence — a departure from the more than 1,000 incidents tallied in CBC's 2021 investigation.

'I feel nothing will be done'

The survey also included written comments from some of the respondents.

Under a section on the results of reporting violence, almost a quarter of all respondents said they didn't feel supported by the union or the government of Nunavut, their employer.

"I have reported in the past and nothing has come from it," wrote one respondent. "I have stopped reporting because I am clearly on my own when it comes to my safety and keeping my students safe."

"I feel nothing will be done about it, so it becomes suppressed and normalized," wrote another.

Another respondent called the reporting system "a waste of time."

CBC News requested an interview with the education department to go over results from its tracking system from this school year. The department declined, saying it would have numbers available at the end of June and could do an interview in July.

After CBC News met with Matchett and was presented the survey, CBC News again requested an interview for the department to be able to respond to the survey.

In a statement emailed to CBC Thursday, Matthew Illaszewicz, director of stakeholder engagement said the education department received the NTA's report earlier this week and is reviewing it.

Illaszewicz said this year, all schools received mandatory verbal intervention training and the department has partnered with the Canadian Red Cross to offer psychological crisis response to schools.

"We recognize that to achieve meaningful progress and reduce incidents of violence, there is more work to do," Illaszewicz wrote. "We need to build on our current efforts and collaborate with stakeholders and the broader community to ensure a safe and positive environment for students and staff."

Many respondents also said they weren't aware the reporting system existed. Matchett said the union highlights it in training and sends out reminders monthly via email, though acknowledged the NTA needs to do a better job of promoting it.

Illaszewicz also said teachers are still receiving training on how to use the violence reporting system.

The sun shines down on Nakasuk Elementary School in Iqaluit. Students in Nunavut often learn in English instead of their own languages.
The sun shines down on Nakasuk Elementary School in Iqaluit. According to the NTA survey, 38.5 per cent of respondents reported experiencing violence from a student in the 2023-24 school year. (Matisse Harvey/Radio-Canada)

Normalizing violence

Echoing one of the written comments in the survey, Matchett said the union is concerned about the normalization of violence in schools, not only among staff but also in the eyes of students.

He shared an anecdote from his daughter, who's in Grade 1. Matchett said she came home from school one day and told him about a situation where the classroom was evacuated because a student was having an outburst — though Matchett was careful in acknowledging the details were perhaps fuzzy coming from a six-year-old.

"It was just that normalized, 'Well, yeah, we need to leave when they need their space, right?'" Matchett said, quoting his daughter.

"It's just that accepted behaviour. I'm glad she's not affected by that, but it's concerning that she's normalized to it. It was just normalized like no big deal. That's a big concern.

"You also have to think of the impact that's having on the classroom. Having been in the classroom and have to evacuate it because of students, what type of learning is happening that day for the rest of the day?"

If you're Indigenous and experiencing emotional distress, call the First Nations and Inuit Hope for Wellness Help Line at 1-855-242-3310.

For help in Inuktitut, you can call the Kamatsiaqtut Help Line at 1-867-979-3333 or, toll-free from Nunavik or Nunavut, at 1-800-265-3333.