A year ago, Morningstar Christianson, 17, had a choice.
Her mom was offered a job with the Vuntut Gwitchin government in Old Crow.
Christianson could have stayed behind to finish high school in Ontario, or move in with a sister in Calgary, or follow her mom to a fly-in community of a couple hundred people north of the Arctic Circle.
“At first I didn’t think that I was going to come,” said Christianson. “I was like, ‘That is too far, and it’s too crazy.’ And then my adventurous side came out and I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’
“Within a month we were packed up and ready to go. It was awesome. I had never flown before, I had never left Ontario. It was just crazy to hear that we were going to be living in this fly-in community with a bunch a people I’ve never met, completely cut off, away from things like Wal-Mart or a Pizza Hut.”
They moved in December, and Christianson had another choice to make before school started back up in January.
Old Crow, or Whitehorse?
Reason to be excited
High school was offered in the community for the first time in the fall of 2012. Christianson had a chance to join the very first class.
Residents had been calling for the program for decades, said Frances Ross, who teaches the new Grade 10-12 class.
“A big reason that they wanted it is that they raised their kids until they get to 12, 13, 14, and then in those formative teenage years they’d have to send their kids off to Whitehorse,” said Ross.
“They were worried about kids losing their connection to the land, and they were worried about kids getting lost in the shuffle or they would see students come back not with the skill-set that they had sent them away thinking that they would get.”
In the Yukon, graduation rates for students living in rural areas lag behind those for students from Whitehorse.
In 2012, the graduation rate for Whitehorse was 80 per cent compared with 61 per cent in the communities. First Nation students are less likely to graduate in both rural and urban areas.
While some of Yukon’s larger communities have high schools, many rural students still have to travel away to finish school.
Students from communities where high school is not available can apply to live at the Gadzoosdaa residence in Whitehorse. It’s a long way from home, especially for those coming from Old Crow, Yukon’s only fly-in community.
It’s a great option for some students, for example those who are interested in specific course offerings, or sports teams, said Ross.
But some get more out of staying at home.
Christianson said that meeting Ross helped her to choose to stay in Old Crow.
“She was awesome,” said Christianson. “She was like, the nicest person I have ever met. She’s so enthusiastic and happy about everything.”
It was a good choice. When September rolled around in the fall of 2013, it was the first year since Kindergarten Christianson had been excited for school to start, her mother said.
A new way of seeing school
Ross’s classroom inside the Chief Zzeh Gittlit School is set up like any classroom anywhere else – desks and chairs in rows facing the larger teacher’s desk and a white board, a bank of computers facing one side wall.
But it is also different. In one corner there is a couch and lounge chairs with bright throw pillows. On the wall, a picture frame featuring favourite snaps from the class’s fall caribou hunt.
In another corner there is a coffee, tea and hot chocolate station, paid for through Ross’s “attendance initiative program.”
The students earned the funds themselves by contributing samples for scientific analysis of the five caribou they took on a recent hunt, netting $50 per animal.
“A big thing of what we’re trying to do is also break down people’s idea of what school has to be,” said Ross. “Because a lot of students have been unsuccessful in what they imagine in their heads school is: ‘School is sitting at my desk, writing notes, school is the class having a discussion and me not participating, school is me doing poorly and feeling bad about myself.’”
Christianson had never imagined that school could be like this. She grew up all over Ontario, and had lived for four years in South River, south of North Bay.
There, she struggled with bullying and anxiety.
“I tried to conform to what peer pressure was telling me I should conform to…. I started losing my, what some people call my bark. I wasn’t outgoing anymore. I wasn’t laughing as much, and I wasn’t as loud and obnoxious as I usually am. I was just quiet and I kept to myself.”
Old Crow feels more like home than South River did, said Christianson.
Although she is Ojibwe and not Gwitch’in, she relates easily to the culture and community in Old Crow, she said.
“I just find First Nations culture to be so down to earth and so beautiful and I just feel like I belong here. Whether it’s with the people or the earth, the culture is just wonderful to be around.”
Coming to Ross’s class was “a strange and new way of seeing school, for me,” said Christianson.
It was easy, right off the bat, she said. With only four students regularly attending classes, anxiety melted away and she found she could focus on schoolwork.
Writing the textbook themselves
Every student in the class has their own program, based on what it is they would like to get out of it.
“Everything in the class basically just starts with a conversation between the student and myself,” said Ross.
The class is structured around project-based learning. That means that instead of the teacher delivering, say, a geography lecture, the class will come up with a project to work on together, and each student will tackle a different part depending on the learning objectives they need to meet.
This past fall, the class worked together on a project to document the history that led to the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation signing its self-government agreement with the governments of Yukon and Canada in 1993.
The students sat in a wall tent on Crow Mountain for a couple of hours, listening to stories from community members who were involved with the land claims agreement, and took notes.
Then they brought those lessons back to the classroom with the goal of compiling the information into a useful format.
Rather than learning from a textbook, the class was writing the textbook themselves.
Some students were working towards English credits, other social studies.
One student spearheaded the collection and editing of video clips to accompany the project. That work would contribute towards an applied arts credit.
Making school work
Christianson knows she wants to go to college or university, but isn’t quite sure for what.
She would like to work with animals, especially wild animals, or be a social worker like her mom, she said.
The fall hunt was, for her, a new and enlightening experience.
The class was accompanied by an impressive collection of caribou experts.
There was the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation’s game guardian and local hunting experts, but also a biologist and a veterinarian.
So while others were learning how to skin a caribou, (“which I’m not interested in, at all,” she said) Christianson was learning how to detect and diagnose disease.
“That was scary, but awesome. I worked with a biologist and took blood samples from caribou. I poked its eyeball and was feeling for cysts in the lungs, which I thought was totally too weird and scary at first, but it was a really awesome experience.
“I’m really happy to be up here, because at my old school, I never got opportunities like that. I never got very many opportunities. It’s just first class, second class, lunch, third class, forth class. You didn’t get to do anything, and there were hardly any trips.”
Ross has worked with Christianson to make school work for her.
Last semester, Christianson spent the mornings in a math class at Old Crow’s campus of Yukon College.
Then she worked for a couple hours over lunch as a housekeeper at a local bed and breakfast.
And the afternoons she spent with Ross, plowing through the coursework she needs to get into the kinds of programs she wants.
Specialized courses, like biology, she takes through distance education with Ross’s help.
If she had continued in a regular high school program, she would have graduated a year behind her peers, said Christianson.
But because of her unique schedule, she is set to graduate on time in June, with the first class to ever graduate from high school in Old Crow.
She’s not sure where she’ll go next, she said.
She might stay in Old Crow for another year to save money for school.
“I want to figure out what I want to do – that’s what I want to do after high school.”
Contact Jacqueline Ronson at