First Nations education and addictions issues are top of mind for two Yukon advocacy organizations during this year’s upcoming federal election.
Melanie Bennett, executive director for the Yukon First Nations Education Directorate (YFNED), an Indigenous led organization dedicated to improving the success outcomes for First Nation students, says the Yukon is “now one of the regions that has the poorest educational outcomes,” when it comes to the k-12 education.
Yukon government data shows the Grade 12 graduation rate for Yukon First Nations students for the 2019-2020 school year rate was 74 per cent, compared to 84 per cent for non-First Nations students.
However, Bennett notes these numbers are biased as they only reflect the graduation rate for students who entered Grade 12.
She says YFNED data shows only three out of ten First Nations students will make it to Grade 12, and of those, three students only one will go on to post-secondary education.
“Currently the model that we’ve got is the western-European model that is constantly trying to fit our ideologies, pedagogies and world view into that model, and it is not breeding success. It’s leaving a ‘less than’ model for our children,” she says.
While education is managed under the territorial government, YFNED relies on federal money.
Bennett says she’s hopeful the Yukon’s next member of Parliament will help YFNED advocate for change in the current educational model.
“My request would be to have someone on the federal level, A, advocating for that change to happen, and B, put the money behind it,” she says.
Earlier this summer YFNED aided in the implementation of a Yukon First Nations school board which will offer land-based learning and elders in the classroom, among other things. Bennett says the next step is a First Nations school and she wants the federal government to help support it.
“Other regions have their own school and we don’t here. We need a school. It’s long overdue,” she says. “It’s very difficult to hear a federal government saying that ‘we want to bring equity for First Nations across Canada’ (when) we don’t have that in Yukon.”
The issue was also raised at an all-candidates forum hosted by the Council of Yukon First Nations last week.
All five of Yukon’s candidates running for MP say they would invest in First Nations education and the development of a First Nations school.
Brendan Hanley, the Liberal candidate, says improving educational outcomes is part of reconciliation and must begin early while children are still in pre-school. His party would look for partnerships and funding where available.
Lenore Morris of the Green Party says the gap between First Nations and non-First Nations students starts early, and her party would also invest in early childhood programing. If elected, she says would also secure funding for support in the territory’s rural and underserved communities.
Lisa Vollans-Leduc of the NDP recounted the story of an elder who expressed concern that her grandson was not receiving the same level of education that children in Whitehorse receive. She says the NDP would “fully support and advocate for” a First Nations school.
Jonas Smith, the only independent running, says he’s a believer in revitalizing First Nations languages and land-based learning, and that he would support Yukon First Nations programming “whatever that may look like.”
Meanwhile, Barbara Dunlop of the Conservative Party would focus on job training and skilled trades as well as invest in developing trades education in Yukon’s rural communities.
Jill Aalhus, program manager for Blood Ties Four Direction Centre, a Whitehorse based harm reduction agency that works with many Indigenous Yukoners, says she would like to see the next federal government tackle the territory’s overdose crisis.
Since 2016, 47 Yukoners have died from opioid related drug overdoses. At least 11 people who died were Indigenous.
“I think one of the biggest things we would like the federal government to work towards is the decriminalization of drug possession,” Aalhus says.
“It’s a harm reduction tool that’s been proven to be very effective in reducing harms. The criminalization of people who use drugs has really attributed to a number of overdose crisis and a number of other harms in our community.”
Aalhus says the unaffordability and unavailability of housing in the Yukon is also affecting Yukoners who use drugs, marginalizing an already vulnerable sector of the population.
“We have a housing crisis here in the Yukon that affects our clients as well, so it would be great to see the federal government put in place new supports for people who use drugs who are also impacted by the housing crisis,” she says.
All of the candidates platforms promise to advance supports for Yukoners struggling with addictions.
Liberal candidate Brendan Hanley’s platform includes launching a three-digit mental health crisis hotline and introducing a national strategy to address problematic substance use and end the opioid crisis.
Lisa Vollans-Leduc of the NDP says she’s committed to declaring the addictions crisis a public health emergency, decriminalizing people who use drugs, creating a safe supply chain and launching an investigation into the role drug companies may have played in fueling the opioid crisis.
Similarly, Lenore Morris of the Green Party says she support the decriminalization of drugs as well as advocate for more distribution of naloxone kits, particularly in the territory’s smaller communities. She says she would also push for more funding at the federal level for addictions centred initiatives.
Independent Jonas Smith’s platform also touches upon the addictions crisis and promises to ensure the territory has adequate mental health services and support for those struggling with addictions in all Yukon communities.
Conservative candidate Barbara Dunlop did not respond to APTN by press time, though her Facebook page references the Conservative Party of Canada’s plan to the address the opioid crisis by building 50 new recovery community centres across Canada as well as investing in recovery centres and Indigenous mental health and drug treatment programs.
The federal election will take place on Sept.20.