After years of trying, the Yukon’s First Nations finally have a new commitment from the territory to address long-standing concerns about education and language.
Education Minister Scott Kent signed a memorandum of understanding Wednesday between the Yukon government and the territory’s 14 First Nations. While it hasn’t put pen to paper yet, the federal government is expected to sign on as well.
The agreement lays out an action plan to address the education gap and its link to low employment numbers in the Yukon’s First Nations communities. It’s a document that Grand Chief Ruth Massie said has been a long time coming.
“I’ve been waiting three years to see a signature on that document,” said Massie, after Kent signed the document at the Council of Yukon First Nations’s monthly leadership meeting in Whitehorse on Wednesday.
“What we’re looking to do is develop an action plan for First Nation education in the Yukon … with a focus to increase learning outcomes and to close that educational gap that exists between First Nation and non-First Nation students,” said Kent.
The territory began its Education Reform project in 2005. That became the “New Horizons” plan in 2007. There was also the Education Report in 2008 and a particularly damning report on the Education Department by the auditor general in February 2009.
But after almost eight years of work, the gap between First Nation and other students is still worryingly wide.
According to the Department of Education’s latest annual report, 74 per cent of non-First Nation students earn their high school diploma, compared with only 56 per cent of First Nation students.
That education gap is closely linked with low employment numbers for First Nation communities, a gap that exists despite high interest from companies seeking to hire Yukoners in resource development and other projects.
“We are also involved in the labour market surveys and the outcomes coming from there. That was the number-one stark outcome, the level of education. In today’s society, you can’t do anything without the basic education level of Grade 12,” said Massie.
Before signing the agreement, Kent held an open discussion with the assembled chiefs and elders to hear their concerns about the state of First Nation education in the Yukon.
One of the biggest issues raised is the challenge of keeping the First Nations’s traditional languages alive.
James Allen, chief of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, spoke in support of the Champagne bicultural program, for which funding will soon run out.
The program is a working group that meets on a monthly basis for intensive two- and three-day-long sessions where the Southern Tutchone language and traditions are spoken and recorded.
Kent was non-committal about whether funding for that program could be extended, but did say that outcomes from that program and others like it have been “tremendous.”
Massie said that part of the concern about First Nation languages is a feeling that ownership of the languages and traditions have been taken from First Nations communities and vested in the territorial education system, which only allocates 15 minutes of class time a day to teaching them.
One pilot project that she said is showing promising results is the implementation of “language nests,” which are similar to the Champagne bicultural program.
Instead of learning language from a textbook, Massie said students are brought together with fluent speakers in these “nests,” where “they only speak the native language.
“There is no English spoken, and the students are really picking up on that. You only learn when you learn language as a conversation rather than the dictionary function.”
Kent said the next step is to show Ottawa that First Nations education is a priority in the Yukon and action is needed.
“We need to send some strong messages to Canada about this, and if I need to work with my northern colleagues, I will, but I’d rather work with the people at this table. I think that sends as strong or stronger of a message about the situation here in the Yukon,” he said.
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