The chief of Kluane First Nation (KFN) in Burwash Landing, Yukon, says a lack of educational infrastructure for high schoolers at a local school is driving families away from the area.
Bob Dickson says around 20 families have moved in recent years from Burwash Landing so their children can attend high school hours away in Haines Junction or Whitehorse.
Many of the families have members that are KFN citizens.
“There are some families that move to Whitehorse and they find employment there and they find their kids fit in, there’s more activities in Whitehorse, and yeah, they don’t come back,” he says.
Students from Burwash Landing attend Kluane Lake School 10 minutes away in Destruction Bay.
A school review from 2016 states the school is “K-4 to Grade 7,” and has three rooms with additional facilities for a gym, library, and a stage for performing arts.
Dickson says the school was constructed in the 1950s and has gone through a number of renovations, which is “just costing more and more to keep this school running.”
Government data shows the school has never had more than 14 students enrolled since 1999.
According to the most recent Yukon Public School enrollment report from October 2020, 11 students were enrolled at the school. Nine were enrolled in elementary and two in secondary. The two secondary students were listed as being in grade 8 and 12, respectively.
An employee at the Kluane Lake School told APTN News the two secondary students are taught by a high school intermediate teacher and through Moodle, an online learning portal. They said the grade 12 student is also enrolled in Aurora Virtual School, an eLearning service.
Despite the two secondary students enrollment, Dickson says it’s not common for students to attend the school past Grade 8, and the family’s departures are preventing the small community of 100 people from growing.
“We’ve always been penalized for not having enough kids here. If you look at it the way I look at it, the families and the kids here are moving away so how can we build a base if that keeps happening? We want this school to accommodate more children,” he says.
Dickson says it’s an issue he himself has experienced, as he had to attend high school elsewhere. He also moved his family to Whitehorse for a few years so his two children could attend high school there.
“It’s a challenge. You have to pack up your whole life and move it for a number of years. In my case, I was able to move back, but a lot of people can’t.”
He says it’s an issue that’s existed in the community for over 100 years.
“My great-grandfather wrote a letter to YTG (Yukon territorial government) back in 1917 and said ‘we need a school here in the community.’ It’s 2021 now and we’re still negating with YTG to get a school built.”
Family says move ‘disruptive’
The van Lieshout family moved out of Burwash Landing four years ago when their son needed to be enrolled in high school.
They moved over an hour away to Haines Junction, which has a K-12 school and more students.
“Our oldest child kind of aged out of school in Destruction Bay. Not that you can’t do homeschool, but to have a school experience is not really possible for high schoolers,” says mom Diyet.
She says the decision wasn’t easy.
“It can be really disruptive, like for our children it was disruptive. That big move, you know, when they love the life, it can be really difficult.”
Diyet says it can also be burdensome for parents.
“Having to move to another community for school is a huge undertaking for any family. Parents have to look for other work, you have to secure housing. If you still want to maintain your home in Burwash you still have to do that as well.”
Diyet says she’s worried children that attend school elsewhere will lose their connection to KFN.
“The heart of any community is the families. For us having to take away our kids from the community, from their grandparents, and them not having that really daily close relationship that I might have been lucky to have when I was young, it’s really hard because their identity is so tied into that community feeling, as a Kluane First Nation person.”
New school a possibility
Dickson says KFN is working on a project to entice families to move back in the area, which includes offering employment and building small housing units so families can use them while spending time in Burwash Landing.
And according to the Yukon government, it’s working with the community to get the school built.
“In June 2020, our governments signed a Memorandum of Understanding outlining a commitment to plan and construct a new school there. Recently, we took another step forward in this project by launching a tender for an Owner’s Advisor, a contractor who will oversee the project,” said Kyle Nightingale, assistant director of community relations with the Yukon government. “This school is being planned to accommodate K-12 students to allow students to graduate high school in their home community.
“It is the Government of Yukon’s responsibility to provide for building and budgeting for the school. As far as costs go, we are still very much in the initial planning stages of this project. This fiscal year, we have allocated $500,000 to support planning for the project.”
Dickson would like to see the school be based in KFN tradition and expandable so more can be built on.
“We don’t expect our First Nation to stay at the level it is now. Once we bring families home, we expect to build out for the people here and the children to go to school.”
However, he’s doubtful it will become a reality.
“I’m always skeptical. When the doors open, I can say ‘yeah.’ Until then, like I said, this all happened back in 1917.”
KFN passed a resolution at their last general assembly that states if YTG doesn’t work with them to build a new school it has a mandate to build a school on its own.
Dickson says the cost will have to be covered by KFN.
“It will be a burden for our First Nation for sure.”
“But at some point we must weigh the education and success of our people against continuing down the road that hasn’t been successful for 100 years.”
While the van Lieshouts are stuck living away from Burwash Landing for now, Diyet says they’re hopeful a new school will someday be a reality – and that they’ll be able to return with daughter Samara who’s in sixth grade.
“We will be going home like she said, and, maybe, she’ll be the first one to graduate from Burwash.”