Making change in aboriginal education

For Kim Rumley, an educational support worker for the Vuntut Gwitch'in First Nation, the state of aboriginal education in the territory is obvious. It's not good.

For Kim Rumley, an educational support worker for the Vuntut Gwitch’in First Nation, the state of aboriginal education in the territory is obvious.

It’s not good.

“We still have kids coming out of communities not at grade level,” she said. “We still have kids dropping out, at rapid rates, at Grades 8, 9 and 10. And we still have a lot of work to do, within our communities and within Whitehorse as well, in engaging our aboriginal youth and keeping them in school and keeping them educated.

“When you’re coming into a situation, especially from a small community, and you’re coming into a larger centre and you’re already behind – what do you think that does to your self-esteem and motivation level?”

In today’s world, with the knowledge and technology at our disposal, this is not acceptable, said Rumley.

And she’s not the only person to say so.

The situation isn’t any better for Inuit communities in the eastern North.

“We only have a 25 per cent graduation rate,” said Udloriak Hanson with the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. “That’s really quite appalling. At this day and age, that should not be.”

And like Rumley, Hanson is able to point out causes of the current situation.

“For Inuit, it was just as little as 50 years ago that we were first introduced to a formal education system,” she said. “We, of course, had a very long and successful education system before the southern one was brought up. And that’s where we are failing our children.

“We’re adapting or adopting curriculum systems from the south and moving them up north and tweaking them here and there and saying, ‘Well this should be good enough for our children.’ Well, it’s not.”

And on top of the drastic cultural shift, there is an even more obvious factor.

Inuktitut is not a part of the curriculum imported from the south.

“Our language is not respected through the curriculums,” said Hanson. “It’s not based on our language, it’s not written in our language and it’s not delivered in our language all through the grades.

“We tell our children to respect it and speak it at home, but then when you go to school it’s a different story and then when you go to work it may be a different story too – there’s so many inconsistencies that, at some point in time, we just have to take it and say, ‘We’re going to develop something of our own that respects our language, culture and world view.’”

Hanson has been selected to sit on a panel of judges for the first-ever Canadian Ashoka Changemakers competition.

Ashoka is a global organization of social innovators. Its changemaker competitions work with funding organizations to provide widespread awareness and money for innovative ideas that can cause large-scale social change.

When Ashoka Canada decided to hold its first local competition, the topic choice stood out like an elephant in the room – or rather, an elephant absent from the room.

“We elect social entrepreneurs around the world and when we looked at our social entrepreneurs in Canada, we had nobody that was aboriginal,” said Elisha Muskat, executive director of Ashoka Canada. “We thought aboriginal education would be a great space to focus on, given the gaps in learning and achievement and the fact that we all believe it’s challenges in the system that have led to these gaps.”

Held entirely online, it is not just the cash awards, but the process itself that makes this competition so valuable.

Competitors enter their ideas for any program or initiative, for any aspect of aboriginal education from early childhood to adult and career training, like they would enter a profile on Facebook.

The online platform gives an opportunity for people to share their ideas and get feedback to develop them even further. And even if an idea doesn’t get funded by the program, it may still become connected with a funding agent that looked through the entries.

“Everyone has access to it,” said Hanson. “The need to access high-quality, culturally relevant resources and programs in education is crucial. And we have to start somewhere. And that’s why we support the Ashoka Changemakers initiative because it’s starting with the communities, it’s starting with individuals.”

And it’s not like there aren’t good ideas out there already.

This year, Hanson’s own organization, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, released a national strategy on Inuit education.

It’s like a blueprint for curriculum in the Inuit North, said Hanson.

And it is based on small projects that have been going on in individual communities for years, she said, mentioning a teaching colleague of her sister’s who developed her own curriculum for her own classroom and made sure to pass it along when she retired.

“That’s the way they have to adapt,” she said. “It really is piecemeal and dependant on the strength of our teachers, which takes a toll on them.”

And the same is true for aboriginal education in Yukon.

Programs like experiential education exist, but they are rare and underfunded, said Rumley.

But they are the key to success for the territory’s aboriginal students, she said.

“The beautiful thing about (the Ashoka Changemakers competition) is that it gets to share across all regions,” said Hanson. “So somebody who’s doing something in a tiny little community in the Inuvialuit region will be able to share it right across Canada. And hopefully bring it to the attention of funders.”

“Any funding that we can get to better education in the territory or implement more experiential programs to get our kids at grade level so that they’re not frustrated and their self-esteem is not suffering and their not lowly motivated – anything that could come our way would be positive,” said Rumley.

And that’s exactly what Ashoka Canada hopes to achieve with this changemakers competition, said Muskat, adding that just by looking through the 22 entries submitted so far, she has learned about communities she didn’t even know existed. For example, a few entries from the Waterhen Lake First Nation in Saskatchewan motivated her to Google where Waweyekisik was.

“It’s helping us all build awareness of what’s out there,” she said.

“We’ve got some amazing resources in the Yukon and we’ve got some amazing educators in the Yukon,” said Rumley. “I think we need to take what we’re doing right in the Yukon, and we need to build on that. And we need to look at what we’ve been doing wrong in the past, acknowledge that, and move away from it.

“We fear change and we seem to fear radical change. But that’s what it’s going to take, because we’re still losing our kids.”

Entries for the more than 30 Changemaker awards (which range from $500 to $5,000) can be submitted until January 25. Early entry prizes are available if ideas are submitted by December 7. Online public voting runs from March 7 to March 21 and winners will be announced on the 22.

The website is

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at