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Deputy minister of education responds to criticism during audit hearing

Nicole Morgan blamed COVID-19 for delays in reforming inclusive education.
Deputy Minister of Education Nicole Morgan and Assistant Deputy Minister of Education Ryan Sikkes pictured in a file photo from a 2021 press conference. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News file)

Staff from the Department of Education took the stand on Jan. 19 to respond to criticism from the Chief’s Committee on Education that said too much talk and not enough action was taking place.

“There is an inherent tension between getting to action and taking the time needed to build trusting relationships, to ask questions, to listen, to seek other perspectives,” said deputy minister Nicole Morgan.

“I acknowledge those words are difficult for many Yukon First Nations to hear. Much patience is gone. There is a call for action now. First Nations have worked hard for decades to see real change for their children,” she said.

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.

Last week, the department faced criticism from a number of groups, including the Yukon Chiefs Committee on Education, who said not enough action had been taken and that First Nations felt as if decisions were being made unilaterally.

“The ever-present demands of the pandemic on our education system has impacted our progress in some areas, but not our resolve,” Morgan told the committee on Jan. 19.

She acknowledged delays in assessments and data.

“How do you complete a teacher evaluation when staff are delivering school remotely and there’s no students in the school?” she asked the members of the committee.

She did provide data to the committee that showed in the past five years, graduation rates for Yukon First Nation students have varied between 64 per cent and 74 per cent of students.

They reached an all-time high in the 2017-18 year, at 80 per cent, matching graduation rates of non-First Nation peers. They have returned to 74 per cent in the most recent 2019-20 year, which was 10 percentage points behind non-First Nation student rates.

The department of education held a summit on inclusive and special education in 2021. The process to establish a First Nations school board is also ongoing.

Over the course of the four-hour hearing on Jan. 19, she referred to how the department is laying the groundwork for change, by coming up with definitions and gathering information with a “spirals of inquiry” process.

MLA Currie Dixon asked a question around the 90-minute mark noting that the chiefs’ committee had raised concerns that while summits and spirals may be useful within government, they aren’t providing short-term changes for struggling students.

“Many of the activities planned by the [Department of Education] are activities that adults are engaged in with little impact on students,” noted Dixon.

In response, Morgan referred to “spirals of spirals” taking place, including educators evaluating the new curriculum in classrooms.

“I would agree with the comments that the previous process [in 2019] didn’t really seem to get to action,” she said, although she believes that the “spiral of inquiry” plans are building trust that could lead to action.

Other items in the work plan to improve the schools include better training for teachers in First Nation culture, the possible transition to the First Nations school board and involving more elders and knowledge keepers in classrooms.

Morgan said teacher evaluations are still taking place, but constraints within the collective agreement mean the department has faced difficulty involving third parties like First Nations in seeing that information.

Contact Haley Ritchie at