Parents at eight schools in the Yukon are voting on a proposal that could put control of their children’s education in the hands of the territory’s indigenous teams, the result of an effort that one official says began nearly 50 years ago.
Parents vote on a proposal to create a First Nations School Board with the authority to appoint staff, review and amend school plans, and request that an educational program be provided in the Aboriginal language.
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The push to establish the Territory’s First Nation School Board of Directors dates back to 1973, said Melanie Bennett, executive director of the First Nations Education Directorate.
Bennett, who is of Tr’ondek Hwech’in First Nation in Dawson City, said the board would provide an opportunity to improve the system for leaving Aboriginal children behind, providing education from both Aboriginal and non-Indigenous perspectives.
“It’s about a model of reconciliation and in order to do that you have to provide a platform where both theories of the world are recognized,” she said.
The directorate is an independent body established in 2020 to help First Nations take more control over education.
Bennett added that the school board would be unique in that it would include several First Nations across the territory rather than a single division in a reserve taking charge of education.
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A proposed school board framework agreement was signed in June between the Department of Education and 10 of 14 countries in the Yukon. It was aimed at improving the education of indigenous students and providing them with a culturally appropriate education.
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About 23 percent of the territory’s public school students in 2018-2019 identified themselves as Yukon First Nations.
In a 2019 report, the territory’s auditor general said that Indigenous children routinely lack educational support to help them succeed in school and graduate. The report said Yukon also failed to adequately reflect First Nations culture and languages in the classroom.
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Bennett said an Indigenous school board would go a long way to fixing those issues.
“You need to address the racism of low expectation that occurs with Indigenous students,” she said, adding that research has found that 80 percent of Indigenous kindergarten children need extra help with their homework.
The eight schools will cast separate votes on whether to approve the creation of the board. If more than 50 percent of parents in a school vote for it, the board will operate that school.
If approved, elections will be held in March for the five Board of Directors’ secretaries. Schools run by the new council will not be exclusively for Indigenous students and can be attended by any child.
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Fonteut Guichen president Dana Tizia Tram, who is also chair of the Heads of Education Committee, said the importance of the proposal could not be underestimated.
“This is an opportunity to allow innovation, to break through the walls of pre-existing education systems,” he said. “This will not negatively affect non-Indigenous students.”
The committee was established a few years ago to improve educational outcomes for Indigenous children and youth.
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Tizia Tram said the council would also help create common ground between indigenous and non-indigenous groups.
Lauren Wallingham, whose child is studying at one of the schools where the proposed blackboard vote is taking place, said she believes it would be beneficial for all students to study the Aboriginal perspective.
“It would be a huge thing to have that incorporated in a real way, and not just as an addition,” she said.
Wallingham, an Aboriginal, was part of a group that asked parents to take part in the referendum at Takhini Primary School in Whitehorse.
She said most parents she spoke to were open to the referendum after the school board explained it to them.
Voting will continue until January 27 but regardless of the outcome, Bennett said she hopes the process will inspire others across the country.
“As a first step, this is very positive,” she said.
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