Bob Dickson, the chair of the Chiefs Committee on Education, speaks to media in Whitehorse on June 20 about a report that found First Nations students may not be receiving adequate schooling. Dickson says the lack of support is forcing students and their families to uproot from the community of Burwash Landing for better education. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)

Families are leaving Burwash because students are unsupported, chief says

The Department of Education recently denied an extra teacher at Kluane Lake School

The Yukon Department of Education refused a request to place an additional teacher to instruct secondary students at the Destruction Bay school earlier this month.

The chief of the Kluane First Nation says the lack of support is forcing students and their families to uproot from the nearby community of Burwash Landing.

“We’re losing out capacity in our community,” said Chief Bob Dickson, adding that high school-aged students are moving to Whitehorse or Haines Junction. “We lose our staff and we also lose our children, right? And the children don’t come back once they’ve gone away. We’re trying to build a community and we keep having to send people away for school every year, that’s what the issue is.”

Students from Burwash attend Destruction Bay’s Kluane Lake School and leave to attend high school, Dickson said.

According to the Department of Education, only kindergarten to Grade 7 students have enrolled at the school for the upcoming school year.

It appears that students beyond Grade 8 haven’t been accommodated at the school, according to departmental data going back to 2003.

Department spokesperson Jason Mackey said the principal at Kluane Lake School is able to assign one of the existing teachers to instruct students in Grades 8 to 12. This hinges on enrolment, he added.

That’s news to Dickson, who said he wasn’t aware the principal could do that.

“Now (Mackey’s) putting it back on the principal and saying it’s not them, it’s the principal. I think it’s odd that they’re changing the story at the last minute,” he said. “We just got the email that they’re denying the position and now they’re saying that it’s always been there.”

A request for comment from the school’s principal wasn’t immediately returned.

The department shared the June 14 email with the News that rejects an extra teacher. It says the department can instead support current staff at the school to ensure secondary instruction during the upcoming school year.

As of May 31, 2019, 25 students self-identified as Kluane First Nation citizens at schools in Whitehorse and Haines Junction, Mackey said. Broken down, this number includes 12 Kindergarten to Grade 7 students and 13 Grades 8 to 12 students.

There are roughly 100 Kluane First Nation citizens living in Burwash Landing, Dickson said.

The Kluane Lake School has two full-time equivalent teachers, one educational assistant and a part-time Indigenous language teacher, Mackey said.

“One of the teachers is qualified to teach secondary school curriculum,” he said in a written statement. “The school principal, with the superintendent, has the flexibility to determine specific teaching assignments based on the learning needs of the school each year.”

The News asked several times why an extra teacher was refused. Mackey parroted the email, saying that one couldn’t be provided at this time.

“These are ongoing conversations with the Kluane First Nation at government to government level,” he said. “We’re committed to continuing to discuss their children’s success.”

That a teacher was denied shows the department isn’t working with the First Nation, Dickson said.

“They should be able to make a decision on one position. What we’re all about is keeping our families and our people in our community so they don’t have to go away to (Haines Junction) or Whitehorse to go to school.”

The First Nation has another request. It’s one that’s over a century old.

Kluane First Nation has been asking for a school to be built in Burwash Landing for 102 years, said Dickson, adding that it was his great-grandfather who initially asked.

“We’re still dealing with the same issues,” he said.

Tracy-Anne McPhee, minister of education, told the News on June 24 that the old letter requesting a new school was found in 2017.

“We committed to working with them going forward to build a school and to determine whether it should be in Burwash,” she said. “That determination has been made. It should be Burwash. The vast majority of kids going to that school live in Burwash, and we have been working with the Kluane First Nation going forward to determine how they would like that school to be built there, and what their needs and priorities are and how we can achieve that.”

She said there’s no timeline for the build because parties continue to deliberate. In terms of what grades the school would serve, that, too, is another conversation piece, McPhee added.

These issues follow the release of a recent auditor general report, a principal finding being that the education department can’t ascertain whether what it’s doing is improving outcomes for First Nations students, suggesting they’re being underserved. It also says that not enough is being done to incorporate First Nations languages and culture in the Yukon’s school system.

Dickson blasted the Yukon government over the report last week, saying it has “failed” First Nations students.

McPhee has told this newspaper that these problems were present during the tenures of former governments.

The auditor general’s report includes seven recommendations to remedy issues. McPhee has said that all of them have been accepted.

Contact Julien Gignac at

julien.gignac@yukon-news.com

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