Kluane Adamek was 15 when she had to leave her family.
“It was pretty scary,” she said. “I didn’t know anybody.
“Could you imagine moving away at Grade 10 and living in a residence? I didn’t get to see my family every month. I didn’t get to go home. I didn’t get to see my little brothers. It’s really, really hard.”
But Adamek is not the only Yukoner to go through this.
Almost all Grade 10 students from the territory’s rural communities have to move, all on their own, to Whitehorse to continue school.
Some of them move when they are younger.
Most are aboriginal.
“We look at the stats for First Nations in education and there’s a high dropout rate,” she said. “Traditionally, for First Nations, having elders, having other peer groups, having people around to support them through a hard time is something we’ve practised for a long time.”
After finishing high school and earning a degree, Adamek had an idea about how to provide support to other aboriginal students who had left their families and community.
Adamek was hired by the education department of the Council of Yukon First Nations right out of university.
Eventually, her idea turned into the Student Mentorship Program, which has been backed by the council and is now getting ready for its second year.
The program connects Grade 11 and 12 mentors with Grade 8, 9 and 10 students.
It offers extensive cultural training, as well as leadership, counseling and emergency training for its mentors. Then it connects them to the youth.
Numerous group activities are planned throughout the school year, from special feasts and cultural activities with elders and community leaders, to sports and movie nights.
The mentors are required to spend a minimum of 15 hours a month with the students and the pairs are given Tim Hortons gift cards and Canada Games Centre passes as an incentive.
Last year, the first of the program’s existence, it was only offered at FH Collins High School and seven pairs participated.
This year, the program is expanding.
“What we realized, as we went on throughout the year, was that other students from other schools wanted to be a part of it,” said Adamek. “Parents wanted their kids to be a part of it.”
The goal is to double last year’s number with 14 pairs. And already Vanier, Porter Creek and FH Collins Secondary Schools, as well as the Individual Learning Centre, have offered their support, said Adamek.
And, after a quick presentation in an empty classroom at Porter Creek Secondary on Wednesday, it had the support of Grade 12 student Caleb Smith and Grade 11 student Dustin Charlie too.
“It looks cool,” said Charlie, after watching a video from last year’s activities.
He admits it is hard for First Nations students from small communities to make friends.
“It’s because they are so quiet,” he said. “But I talk a lot, so it helps.”
Plus, it helped that many of Charlie’s cousins were older students at the school when he got there, he said.
Charlie is a member of the Vuntut Gwitch’in First Nation and he lived the first five years of his life in Old Crow.
He goes back often, especially during the summers, where he helps out with hunting and cultural camps.
“And whatever else needs to be done,” he said.
Like Charlie, Smith was lucky to know many older students when he got to high school. While he is a member of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, he grew up in Whitehorse, he said.
It is common for aboriginal kids to hang out with other aboriginal kids, although it seems to become less so with each year, he said.
But not knowing older students would have made his high school career much harder, he said.
Before heading back to class, Smith already started offering Adamek suggestions on group activities.
“It’d be cool to have breakdancing nights and stuff,” he said.
Adamek couldn’t contain her smile.
The need for positive male role models in aboriginal communities is especially important, she said.
And as the program develops, its potential to do more for aboriginal students becomes apparent.
“All those kids out there that might be First Nation and they might not know what First Nation they’re from, or those kids that don’t have that cultural and traditional link, but they have the interest – this program is for all those students too,” she said.
“It’s a really great way for First Nations students to meet other First Nations students.
“It’s basically just an avenue to create relationships and to really build the First Nation and aboriginal community within a school community.”
A handful of First Nations have hired a single employee to act somewhat like a guidance counsellor for their students going to Whitehorse for school, but they cannot provide the same type of support as the mentorship program can, said Adamek.
“The youth-to-youth approach is the best one,” she said. “We know this.”
And the initiative is complemented by programming offered by staff at the student residences, she added.
Eventually, this program could do even more.
It could help bring more aboriginal culture into the public school system.
“The goal is to have a system where our students thrive at the same rate as other students,” she said. “It’s not ‘us’ versus ‘you.’ It’s, if we’re going to share this beautiful land, then let it be a space where everybody can thrive at the same level. And if that means including more culturally relative curriculum so that non-First Nations can recognize all the traditions of this land, then let’s do it.”
After graduating high school, Adamek, a Kluane First Nation citizen, couldn’t list all 14 Yukon First Nations.
“People are graduating in the Yukon and do not even know what land claims are,” she said. “What I would like to see is an obligatory Yukon First Nations history class.
“I remember we learned a little bit about residential schools, but not nearly enough. What this is about, is awareness. What is the Yukon? The Yukon is not Whitehorse.
“People are graduating high school and they can’t identify – when they go to Dawson, when they go to Mayo, when they go to Carcross – which First Nations’ traditional territory they’re on. There’s 13 provinces and territories. There should be no reason that students cannot graduate the Yukon education system and know the 14 Yukon First Nations.
“That’s the history here in the Yukon.”
The deadline for students to apply to be a mentor for this year is Friday. Applications can be picked up and dropped off at the Council of Yukon First Nations’ offices on the corner of Second Avenue and Black Street. Or, simply call Adamek at 393-9243.
Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at