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“Momentous occasion in history” Yukon First Nation School Board set to come to fruition

 The fight to improve education for First Nations students goes back decades.

Takhini Elementary School in Whitehorse is one of eight schools that have voted in favour of joining the board.

It looks like the Yukon First Nation School Board is becoming reality.


The unofficial results from Elections Yukon – tallied last night – show that seven out of the eight school attendance areas participating in the referendum have voted to join the board.


Melanie Bennett of the Tr’ondёk Hwёch’in First Nation is the executive director of the Yukon First Nation Education Directorate, the organization that will oversee the board. She is excited about the news.


“I can definitely say that yesterday marked a momentous occasion in history for Yukon education,” says Bennett.


First Nations students historic disadvantage


Education in the Yukon hasn’t had the best reputation. Bennett says the push for better schooling for Indigenous students in the Yukon goes back almost 50 years.


In 1973, a delegation of Yukon Chiefs led by Elijah Smith headed to Ottawa to meet with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to present the document “Together Today For Our Children Tomorrow.” According to the paper, the territorial education system at the time was failing Indigenous students and that if things were to continue down that path, it would result in a “one hundred percent drop-out rate.” It goes on to call out the education system for not teaching the “Indian Way of Life,” saying that, “The White student is not taught about the history of the Yukon before the Gold Rush.”


“Until this is corrected, the Indian student will be at a disadvantage in a classroom where most of the students are White,” it adds.


Decades later, evidence shows that things haven’t improved for First Nations students in the Yukon. A 2019 auditor general of Canada report found that the territory’s department of education had not identified why First Nations students have a lower high school graduation rate than other students. It also revealed that the government of Yukon wasn’t doing enough to provide education programs that reflect First Nations culture and languages.


The report contains some numbers to back up those claims. Yukon Foundation Skills Assessment statistics for the 2017 to 2018 school year show that 68 percent of First Nations students in grade 7 were where they should be when it comes to reading, while 85 percent of non-First Nations students hit the literacy mark. 44 percent of First Nations students met numeracy expectations, whereas 77 percent of non-First Nations learners were on track. The report also states that of the First Nations students in the Yukon who started grade 8 during the 2011 to 2012 school year, 37 percent dropped out before finishing high school. That is compared to the 14 percent of on non-First Nations kids that dropped out.


No reasonable changes


Earlier this month, the Yukon Legislative Assembly’s Standing Committee on Public Accounts held a public hearing with the Yukon Chiefs Committee on Education appearing as a witness to discuss whether or not any progress has been made towards improving education since the 2019 report.


Bennett is a technician on the Yukon Chiefs Committee on Education. After the hearing she told CHONfm that she had not seen any reasonable changes, but she is hopeful that the new school board will bring improvements.


Bennett says the first conversations of a Yukon First Nation School Board started back in 2016 when First Nations representatives reached a “point of frustration” after four years of trying to get recommendations from the “Joint Education Action Plan,”- drafted in 2012 – implemented. From there, with the help of Indigenous education groups across the country and the Yukon’s French school board, a plan was hatched.


“It really opened the door for everyone to see that ‘you know what? There is possibility and we have to do something different,’ ” says Bennett.


Last June, it was announced that the government of Yukon had agreed to set up a First Nation School Board – pending a referendum.


Voting started earlier this month, with polls closing yesterday at 4pm.


According to the preliminary results, every school participating has decide to be a part of the board except for J.V Clark School in Mayo.


That means the Yukon First Nation School board will be made up of:


  • Chief Zzeh Gittlit School in Old Crow
  • Grey Mountain Primary School in Whitehorse
  • Johnson Elementary School and Watson Lake Secondary School in Watson Lake
  • Nelnah Bessie John School in Beaver Creek
  • Ross River School in Ross River
  • St. Elias Community School in Haines Junction
  • Takhini Elementary School in Whitehorse


“I think he would be elated” says Chief Steve Smith, speaking about his dad

Elijah Smith (left) talks to Pete Lord (right)(photo undated – Yukon Archives supplied by VGFN).

49 years have passed since Elijah Smith made the over 5,000 km trek to Canada’s capitol to meet with Pierre Trudeau, and the old saying “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” seems fitting. Smith’s Son Steve is now the Chief of Champagne and Aishihik First Nation and Trudeau’s son Justin is now the prime minister.


Chief Smith says that he has met with Justin Trudeau and their shared history connects them.


“He was a young boy and I was a young boy when this conversation and relationship started back in the early 70s and so, it’s one that kind of ties us together but also presents us with, I think what is a common desire to see a society that is inclusive and reconciled with the first peoples of this land,” Chief Smith tells CHONfm.


Chief Smith says his father would be happy with today’s news if he were still alive.


“Growing up in his household, education was important. He always remarked about how it was him and my mother’s responsibility to get us to grade 12 and it was our responsibility from there,” says Chief Smith.


“I think he would be elated by the fact that now we have an actual direct ability to fashion an education system that meets the needs of today,” Chief Smith adds.


As for himself, Chief Smith says he feels “heart warmed” and thankful for everyone who played a part in making the new board happen.


This morning, the Yukon’s Minister of Education Jeanie McLean put out a statement that partially reads, “this is a major step in the right direction as we move forward in advancing the path to reconciliation.


“The establishment of a Yukon First Nation School Board will contribute to and improve the educational outcomes for all students across the territory,” the statement goes on to say.


Land-based learning to come


Bennett is hopeful that the new board will make for better education and improve outcomes for First Nation Students. She says things will look a little different at each school depending on how they decide to set it up, but students will definitely get more land-based learning across the board.


There is a lot of work to be done to get the new board up and running for the 2022 to 2023 school year, but for now Bennet is relaxing.


“Today, I think we’re just going to breath,” says Bennett.


“There is a tremendous amount of work that has to happen in a very short amount of time,” Bennett adds.


“There’s been a number of draft documents being created. We’re not starting from scratch on this so, I think we have a really good jump on it,” Bennett continued.


Now, Yukoners will have to head to the polls again to decide on the board’s trustees.


The official results of the referendum are expected to be provided to Minister McLean this coming Monday.


Published January 28, 2022.

Written by: Dylan MacNeil

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Some Yukoners are hopeful about a possible First Nation School Board

Some Yukoners are hopeful about a possible First Nation School Board “I’m very very excited about it,” says Melanie Bennett. Tomorrow is the last day for voting in the Yukon First Nation School Board referendum.   Eight schools across the territory will decide whether or not they join the board.   A 2019 auditor general of Canada report on education in the Yukon found that the territory’s department of education […]

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