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Nine schools proceed to referendum on First Nations School Board

Process of creating board proceeding, referendum voting coming in January.
Chief Zzeh Gittlit School in Old Crow is one of nine schools in the territory that will hold a referendum focused on whether the school should move to fall under the authority of the newly established Yukon First Nation School Board. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)

The process of creating a First Nations School Board is moving forward. Referendums are on the horizon regarding the nine Yukon schools whose school councils asked to move forward.

In June, the Yukon government and a Committee of First Nations Chiefs announced their agreement on the creation of a parallel education administration that would grant First Nations communities greater control over how their children are educated. When the agreement was finalized the government and chiefs pledged education that would be more compatible with and more celebratory of the First Nations worldview.

The agreement created a system for school councils to decide to put the question of joining the First Nations School Board to a referendum of the adult residents of the school’s area.

As of Dec. 20 the school councils representing six Yukon schools had moved to join the new school board: Chief Zzeh Gittlit School in Old Crow, Grey Mountain Primary in Whitehorse, both Johnson Elementary School and Watson Lake Secondary School in Watson Lake, Ross River School and St. Elias Community School in Haines Junction.

According to Katherine Sandiford, a representative of the Yukon First Nation Education Directorate (YFNED), three more schools joined the process after the school councils received convincing petitions signed by 20 per cent of residents or more in the schools’ attendance areas. Takhini Elementary in Whitehorse, the J.V. Clark School in Mayo and Nelnah Bessie John School in Beaver Creek are the additional schools.

The next step in the process are referendums in the catchment areas of those schools which are scheduled for January. Voting in the referendums will run from Jan. 5 to 27. Sandiford said there will be opportunity for people to vote a variety of ways including in-person, online and by mail. The referendums will need a simple majority of 50 per cent of the vote plus one person in order to pass.

If any of them succeed, a new First Nations School Board will be created and board trustees will be elected.

Sandiford said YFNED’s executive director Melanie Bennett will be visiting the communities where the schools are located in early January to answer questions if the COVID-19 situation allows. Bennett and Sandiford said although there has been considerable support for the creation of the board, some misconceptions needed to be addressed.

“Some of the comments haven’t been good. One I really struggled with was why would we want to have our children set up at the same disadvantage as First Nations children,” Bennett said.

She said the model that would be created is a “more than” not a “less than” system that would offer learning in two worldviews.

Bennett and Sandiford noted that the academic standards and testing at the schools will remain the same, as set out in the Education Act, and the curriculum taught at other schools will also be in place.

Sandiford added that teachers and other staff at the schools will remain in place at the schools under the new board and that changes will be gradual overall.

Bennett said that one of the most common lines of questioning are about the rationale for creating the First Nations School Board. She said it is first and foremost response to First Nations children faring poorly in Yukon schools for decades. She said analysis of poor outcomes go back nearly 50 years to the Together Today for our Children Tomorrow document, a statement of grievances from First Nations chiefs penned in 1973.

Two consecutive auditor general reports underscored the ways the education system was failing Indigenous students. A 2009 report found a discrepancy between educational outcomes between First Nations and non-First Nations students. An audit 10 years later found that the Department of Education had done little to understand the root causes of the problem.

Both Sandiford and Bennett noted that the Yukon is one of the only places in Canada that does not use the school board system (with the exception of the Francophone Yukon School Board for the École Émilie-Tremblay and CSSC Mercier). They said that the board will be able to enact long-term plans more effectively without the influence of politics and will also be able to respond more effectively to concerns from individual schools.

According to the Yukon government, school councils and communities will have the opportunity to pass a resolution or submit a petition in order to have a referendum of their own affecting the 2023/24 school year at a later date.

Contact Jim Elliot at

Jim Elliot

About the Author: Jim Elliot

I’m a B.C. transplant here in Whitehorse at The News telling stories about the Yukon's people, environment, and culture.
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