Referendum to decide whether 9 schools in the Yukon form First Nations school board

Advocates say new board will help communities and First Nations exert more control over education.

Erin Pauls’ three-year-old son Salix will be attending Takhini Elementary School in Whitehorse next year.

A Champagne and Aishihik First Nations citizen, Pauls does not want her son to experience the same issues she had while attending high school.

“I did struggle when I started university. I also struggled with my reading and writing and stuff like that,” she says.

That’s why Pauls is voting in favor of Yukon’s new First Nations school board.

Takhini Elementary is one of nine schools in Yukon where parents and community members are voting in referendums on whether or not their school will join the board for the 2022/23 school year.

The board’s aim is to advance reconciliation in the territory and improve First Nations’ students’ educational outcomes. It will be open to all students.

“I’m voting because I think it’s important,” Pauls says.“I was born and raised in the Yukon and went through the school system here.

“I also work as an education director in the school system, so I’m able to see it from a lot of perspectives, and I’m a parent.”

Yukon education failing First Nations students

Last year a framework agreement to form a First Nations school board was reached by the territorial government and the Chiefs Committee on Education (CCOE). Schools under the board will continue to operate under the education act.

Melanie Bennett, executive director for the Yukon First Nations Education Directorate, an independent organization which is helping with the facilitation of the board, says it’s a much-needed feature in the territory.

Yukon’s education system has been widely criticized for not meeting Indigenous students’ needs, as evidenced by two auditor general’s reports in 2009 and 2019.

Bennett says there’s been a history of “low expectations” for First Nations students, and the board was designed to improve educational outcomes for First Nations learners.

“We’re trying to build a ‘more-than’ model, and we have the opportunity of schools of children who are learning two world views. That’s amazing,” she says.

Board will have community input

The department of education controls the operation of schools in the territory. While school councils do have some say in the running of schools, their power is limited.

However, schools under the board will eventually have five elected trustees made up of Yukon First Nations citizens and parents who will oversee the running of the board.

Trustees will receive and manage funds including those which are received from the department of education. Bennett says trustees will be able to access funding directly without having to go through the department. Trustees will also provide reports to the minister of education.

Other duties of the board include developing relevant First Nations content for the curriculum.

Depending on the school and its surrounding First Nations community, that could include more Indigenous language instruction, land-based learning and elders in the classroom.

Yukon schools currently follow B.C.’s curriculum. Bennett says schools under the new board will continue to follow this curriculum, which is flexible enough to allow for the addition of First Nations material.

The board will also be responsible for hiring staff, approving school plans and assessing and evaluating the schools every five years.

While a First Nations school board is new to the Yukon, Pauls says there’s others boards in places like B.C.

Pauls says she had the opportunity to tour schools under a First Nations school board in B.C.’s Okanagan region and was thoroughly impressed.

“People were clamouring to get in because of the rigorous academics, because of the climate of the school, because of the wonderful assessment practices,” she says. “There’s wonderful school boards all around Canada that are just thriving.”

Not everyone on board

Nine of the territory’s 29 schools are voting in referendums to join the board. Bennett is hopeful once the board is up and running more schools will join. Schools that aren’t holding referendums will have the opportunity to do so for the 2023/24 school year.

She notes some parents and educators are apprehensive about the changes the board will bring.

“Some conversations we’ve heard when doing the referendums is ‘oh, the First Nations are going to take over the schools. This isn’t what this is about,” Bennett says.

“This is about providing an opportunity of collaboration, an opportunity of having a system where all of our kids are going to be successful. It will lift everyone, it’s not just about the Indigenous students.”

She says teachers, too, have also expressed concern about losing their job and adapting to a new educational system. Bennett says the board is utilizing the current existing education act and educators will remain employed.

“For the educators that say ‘I don’t know how to do that, I don’t know to embed the First Nations way of doing, I don’t understand those pedagogies or philosophies,’ there has to be learning for that,” she says.

As for First Nations in the Yukon, Bennet says the majority are excited.

“There’s anticipation. There’s anxiety. Some are going ‘what if it doesn’t pass in our region? We really want it.’ Others are optimistic. Others have said ‘we think this is wonderful, we’re going to wait and see.’”

Results of the referendums will be released on Jan. 31.

The next steps include holding elections for the trustees who will then select a CEO. The CEO will become a Yukon government employee whose role will be similar to that of a superintendent.

Community committees consisting of trustees and community representatives will also be established to make operational and managerial decisions.

Meanwhile, Pauls is hopeful her son will be able to learn in a way that is meaningful to their First Nation’s culture.

“I think it would be very beneficial for all of us to be able to go to school and learn two world views.”

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