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Chiefs’ committee criticizes Yukon Education Department for lack of progress

An auditor general’s report in 2019 found that the Yukon education system was leaving some students behind.
File photo of an empty Whitehorse classroom. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)

Two years after an auditor general’s report found the Yukon government was letting down both Indigenous students and those needing inclusive education, Yukon First Nations say they’ve seen little improvement.

“The lack of success of First Nations students is an urgent issue. There must be immediate action to support our kids, many of whom are further behind because of COVID. To date, there has been little demonstrable action that impacts students directly,” said Melanie Bennett, the executive director of the Yukon First Nation Education Directorate.

“Rather, there has been a large focus on further meetings, conversations and discussions about what the issues are, despite numerous reports that have stated long-standing issues experienced by students in the K to 12 system across the territory.”

Bennett was one of three representatives from the Yukon Chiefs Committee on Education, who attended a two-hour public hearing on Jan. 12, along with lawyer Daryn Leas and Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm.

The Standing Committee on Public Accounts, made up of elected officials, is tasked this month with looking at what progress has been made on an auditor general’s report on gaps in the territory’s education system.

The auditor general’s report was released June 18, 2019 and focused on education outcomes for all Yukon students, inclusive education and Yukon First Nations culture and languages.

It found that graduation rates lagged for First Nation students, teachers felt unsupported and the Department of Education was unaware if programs were meeting the needs of students. The report echoed another report released a decade earlier.

But over a decade since the 2009 report and two years into the 2019 report, Tizya-Tramm said gaps in the education system mean that some First Nation students continue to struggle.

In a written submission, Tizya-Tramm noted that in the 2019-2020 school year, of the 148 Indigenous students enrolled in grade 12, only 73 graduated.

Bennett also noted that First Nations students are more likely to be on an individualized education plan, more likely to perform poorly on early grades assessments and were missing more school than the general population.

“If we do not make the necessary changes to education, we risk failing yet another generation of Indigenous students, and Yukon society as a whole,” said Tizya-Tramm.

The Chief’s Committee also felt that decisions were being made unilaterally by the department before seeking “superficial approval” from First Nations partners.

Asked how the department should approach its relationship with First Nations, Leas said there needs to be a true partnership. He said despite the trauma of residential schools, First Nations in the Yukon are committed to education and have a strong vision of how it should look.

“We’re not stakeholders. We’re not a group you consult with to get our point of view and go away and come back and tell us what you’re going to do,” said Leas.

“It’s difficult when there’s not even a recognition that we do have a colonised system in Yukon and we continue to perpetuate it. We’re not here to allocate blame, or point fingers, but it’s an issue that we need to address together,” he said.

Leas noted that cultural blind spots and racism in the education system can “derail entire lives at a very young age.”

The three witnesses acknowledged there has been some movement towards cooperation. Leas said department officials have come to the education directorate offices.

The hearing also highlighted actions that Yukon First Nations are taking themselves, including culture camps, the Yukon First Nation Education Directorate’s wrap-around support and the current initiative to develop a Yukon First Nations School Board.

Bennett also asked for a third-party assessment of the system. She noted the auditor general’s report suggested a position being created for accountability “to ensure that we aren’t going to have a repeat of 2009.”

The auditor general’s report focused on a wider group than just First Nation students, and the Yukon Chiefs Committee on Education was not the only group being asked to reflect on the current system.

Autism Yukon, Yukon Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology Association, Yukon T1D Support Network, Yukon Association of Education Professionals, and LDAY Centre for Learning all provided written submissions ahead of the hearing.

A second public hearing is scheduled for Jan. 19, when officials with the education department will respond to questions from the committee members.

Contact Haley Ritchie at