The smell of fried fish and bannock waft through the air outside Jack Hulland Elementary School on a sunny morning in May. There’s a buzz of excitement among students as the school’s fish camp, hosted by the Yukon First Nation Education Directorate (YFNED), gets underway.
Over the course of two and a half days, each student at the school takes part in fish camp with their class, learning about the life cycle of salmon and other fish, the fish’s body, how to properly fillet a fish and the variety of dishes fish can be used for. There’s also time to take in a fishing game with classmates and enjoy some bannock, tea and a variety of fish around the campfire.
The event is one of the many programs YFNED delivers to schools throughout the territory aimed at sharing First Nations culture and knowledge with all students. This includes fish camps, drum-making and beading workshops among many others. The directorate also offers a nutrition program, a mobile therapeutic unit and an early years program.
At the fish camp hosted at Jack Hulland Elementary School, each class gets time in the camp area. A crew of advocates, junior advocates and knowledge keepers are on hand sharing knowledge and skills as students take it all in.
The camp is adapted with the grade levels in mind.
“So for the younger kids, there’s a little magnet fishing game,” YFNED education advocate Olive Morland said. “So in moments when kids are lined up for bannock or maybe you know, they don’t have somewhere to be, there’s a junior advocate running a little fishing magnet game.”
Books for both younger and older students are available to puruse. Students in upper grades at the school also get to try their hand at filleting the fish, or even cooking fish over the campfire, with YFNED advocates sharing their own tips for cooking up the perfect fish fry.
“We’re forever learners,” YFNED education advocate Kim Harper said, as she recalled learning a few new cooking skills from a Grade 7 student.
Inside a wall tent on the site, posters detail information about salmon, with knowledge keeper Andy Carlick telling students about the lifecycle of salmon and answering questions. As they ask questions and listen to the answers, students colour information sheets about the fish.
It was only about a year ago that Anthony Johns was taking part in the Jack Hulland school fish camp himself as a Grade 7 student at the school.
On this day, he’s been asked to spend the day away from his Grade 8 classes at Porter Creek Secondary School and instead is in his element at the fish camp, working behind a table filleting salmon and, like Carlick, answering the many questions students ask.
“Apparently, I’m called the fish guy,” the teenager said with a slight grin, referring to a nickname his friends have given him because of his knowledge and skills.
Johns grew up learning much from his grandmother at her fish camp and sharing that at his former school.
As he narrates what he’s doing while filleting the fish, he also answers questions about parts of the fish left on the table for students to pick up and hold. There’s guts, fish heads and more being picked up by the gloved hands of curious students.
While many of the fish parts are kept on the table for the students, there are also pieces vacuumed sealed and stored in coolers that will go towards making chowders, salmon patties and other meals that will be served through many YFNED programs.
Johns is modest when he talks about helping out — he says when the opportunity came up he wanted to be part of it because he likes seeing the smiles from students as they learn about fish. Others from the education directorate are quick to emphasize that John’s strengths go far beyond his filleting skills.
“He’s also a natural leader,” Carlick said. “We watch him at PC [Porter Creek Secondary School] and it’s just amazing to see how he is with other students. He’s always helping and he’s always willing to learn.”
As Harper recalled when the directorate was at Jack Hulland for its fish camp in 2021, Johns wanted to show his classmates what he does at his grandmother’s fish camp and how to fillet a fish.
“He stole the show and did an amazing job,” Harper recalled. “So we’ve recruited him to be one of our mini junior [advocates] to support us with fish camp this week.”
For advocates like Harper and Ryan Troke, watching a student connect with their culture at school and then returning to share that with others is rewarding.
“He is incredibly proud of where he comes from and he’s incredibly proud to share what he’s learned from his family,” Harper said, describing it as a proud moment for YFNED.
Junior advocate Brook-Lynn Mason was also showing how fish are filleted alongside Johns.
Mason said it was thanks to a roommate that she took on the role of junior advocate. Every day her roommate who was working as a junior advocate would come home, telling her about the things she was doing at work — getting to spend the day with elders, dropping off food for the nutrition program and working with students.
“It was new every day,” Mason said, adding she also wanted to be part of a something that has been shown to make a difference for students and families as programs offered under the YFNED have done.
When a job as a junior advocate opened up, Mason applied and has been enjoying her role since.
Other junior advocates working at the fish camp also voiced their goal to make a difference to students and their families, noting these types of cultural activities present many teaching opportunities that would not otherwise come up in a traditional classroom setting.
It takes many to make the fish camp happen starting with the school in requesting the YFNED’s support for the camp.
“They’re really hands-on,” Harper said of the staff at Jack Hulland. “They’re super-inviting, and very keen and excited to be able to do this.”
Ahead of the camp, there’s work to get the printed resources ready along with ensuring there’s enough fish, not to mention the ingredients needed for bannock and other supplies. Over the four days, a total of 24 coho salmon and 45 Arctic char were used for the camp.
“The hope is that each class gets about two Arctic char being gutted and filleted,” Morland said, noting it gives them a chance to see differences in size, textures and more.
The camp was set up on a Monday with the first classes making their way through on Wednesday. By the time the camp ended on Friday, each student had made their way through learning about fish, life cycles, filleting and cooking a fish, and sharing in the feast.
Contact Stephanie Waddell at firstname.lastname@example.org