A Yukon First Nation Grade 12 student thought she was graduating this year.
It was only after a meeting in the principal’s office that she learned she did not have sufficient credits.
“If she did this course, she was going to get her ‘adult walking papers,’” said Robin Smarch, senior education support worker for the Teslin Tlingit Council.
“It wasn’t a real full grad — so I was quite shocked by that,” she said.
“The kid’s thinking she’s graduating, but not (where) she can continue her education at a college or university level.”
Smarch, one of about 40 delegates who spoke at a Council of Yukon First Nations education symposium Tuesday, helped lay out myriad complaints about the difficulty aboriginal students encounter in the education system.
They become involved with alcohol and drugs, they have difficulty adjusting to dormitory life and they do not like leaving their home communities, said leaders and support workers.
The current education system does not allow First Nations meaningful participation in the decisions that affect their members, said Tr’ondek Hwech’in Chief Darren Taylor.
Yukon First Nations have been lamenting a culturally insensitive education system for years.
In 2002, they boycotted an attempt to reform the education act, claiming the proposed changes were not comprehensive enough.
The Council of Yukon First Nations supports individual First Nations, such as Kwanlin Dun, that have threatened to take over the delivery of education.
But Taylor is optimistic about participating in the education reform project, the latest collaboration with government of Yukon. A final report on the project was released last month.
“We are going to try and take one more stab at 17 discussions,” said Taylor, referring to the section of his band’s final agreement that calls for the negotiation of shared responsibility for the delivery and administration of education programs on traditional territory.
“They have an obligation under our agreements that says that they ‘shall,’” he said.
“It’s not ‘may’ language, so if they’re not willing to do it, then, obviously they’re reneging on our agreements and I don’t know what kind of litigation could potentially happen after that.”
Taylor wants the authority to approve educational budgets, assess teachers and develop culturally relevant curricula, as well as provisions for equal representation on school councils.
These reforms would benefit non-First Nations students, as well, he said.
“Because we are an integrated community, we don’t necessarily want to segregate ourselves from the current school system, but play an active role in that process.”
The education system should integrate First Nation values, lifestyle and governance into mainstream learning, said Carcross/Tagish Chief Mark Wedge.
But it also needs to take a far more active role in keeping traditional languages alive.
“We can’t keep going the way that we’ve been going with the languages, because it’s not producing the results that we need,” said Wedge, whose First Nation is also pushing for traditional stories to be part of the local school’s curriculum.
The council has embarked on a language education project, enlisting a half-dozen elders to teach Northern and Southern Tutchone, Tlingit and Kaska.
If member nations decide education reform falls short, the Yukon Native Teacher Education Program, delivered through Yukon College, has turned out enough teachers to give them the capacity to resume the responsibility, said Council of Yukon First Nations grand chief Andy Carville, adding many of the program’s graduates are not being utilized to their fullest.
“We have a lot of First Nation teachers out there — some of them have their master’s in education,” he said.
“There’s one that has her master’s now, and she just got offered a job here not too long ago with YTG teaching Grade One.
“If Kwanlin Dun and others wanted to look at starting their own school, there’s plenty of opportunity for the students that have gone through (the Yukon Native Teacher Education Program).
“YTG would have to provide some of the funding that they currently get from Ottawa to assist First Nations’ governments with this.”
The education reform project will work “hand in hand” with the Council of Yukon First Nations, said Education deputy minister Pamela Hine.
“It’s going to be a wonderful opportunity for us to work with our partners, and not just the First Nations … even students and parents.”
Scheduled to be implemented over several school terms, revisions are expected to be passed by the territorial government in the fall.