Territory snubs mentoring initiative

The Yukon government could help turn around the territory's abysmal graduation rates for the cost of one full-time job. However, the Department of Education has decided not to put up the cash.

The Yukon government could help turn around the territory’s abysmal graduation rates for the cost of one full-time job.

However, the Department of Education has decided not to put up the cash.

“Whatever the average salary is here in Whitehorse to do this, that’s what I’m looking for,” said Josh Silvertown, one of the co-founders of DreamCatcher Mentoring.

“It’s a joke, because of the millions spent on whatever else the government is doing, which don’t get close to the returns we see.”

DreamCatcher is a mentoring program that has helped more than 600 kids in the Yukon over the past five years.

The program links the students to Canadian professionals around the world in careers as varied as navy officer, athlete, video game designer and photographer.

A boy in Faro who is interested in flying could be mentored by an air traffic controller in Whitehorse.

A girl in Whitehorse could discuss international business with a Canadian working in Dubai.

The program runs for one semester online.

Kids fill out a form about what they want to do in the future and are matched with the appropriate mentor.

Some students go on to study in a similar field as their mentor, others decide that the job isn’t for them.

One girl who wanted to be a nurse got to spend a day with her mentor at Whitehorse General Hospital.

After changing her first bedpan, she decided that nursing wasn’t for her.

Mentors and students send e-mails to one another, answering questions and sharing tips.

The e-mails flow through a secure system, and messages are monitored and vetted so the children are kept safe.

The program currently runs on about $50,000 a year. This money goes towards brochures, T-shirts, part-time staff and criminal record checks.

There are currently 180 kids taking part in the program and all 180 of their mentors are volunteering their time for free.

Silvertown himself, who has an MBA and a PhD in biomedical science and works as a cancer researcher in Toronto, volunteers 20 hours a week to the program.

“If I and 600 mentors in Canada can take time and care for the Yukon, Yukoners should step up to the plate and take responsibility as well,” he said.

DreamCatcher was formed in 2005 to address the increasing dropout rates from Yukon high schools.

Only about 57 per cent of Yukon children end up graduating from high school.

Despite the Department of Education’s poor tracking system, DreamCatcher was able to find data on 130 of the kids that had gone through its program.

As many as 94 per cent of them had graduated, or were still in school.

Success like that causes demand, but this has been the first year that they’ve had to turn kids away.

Vanier Catholic Secondary School has been participating in the program since 2007. Fifty new students from the school wanted to participate in the mentoring program over the spring semester, said Silvertown.

“We just couldn’t deal with the demand and the resources required to make another 50 matches.”

Silvertown has been in touch with Education Minister Patrick Rouble.

“When I met with him he told me there was funding,” he said.

“And then, of course, when I wrote him asking for it, he said no.”

Silvertown was directed to speak to the Department of Education.

“Everyone’s passing me off to somebody else.”

There is a process that everyone must go through to get government funding, said Christie Whitley, the assistant deputy minister of public schools.

“We’ve requested that they provide a proposal. To my knowledge there hasn’t been a formal request.”

In the budget process, it would likely take a year and a half for DreamCatcher to get the $40,000 it needs for its full-time position.

“That’s a lot of money within a budget,” said Whitley.

“We’d have to take money away from another project.”

DreamCatcher received $5,000 from the territorial government to start its pilot project in Carcross five years ago.

Since then, the Yukon government has given nothing more than an endorsement.

The program has been funded primarily by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada.

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research has also pitched in some money over the last two years.

Unfortunately for Yukon teens, the program is exploring other options.

The program may move to a different model – away from high school students and towards post-secondary students.

DreamCatcher has already been approached by Yukon College, according to Silvertown.

The group is also looking at moving to a different jurisdiction.

The government of Nunavut is very excited about the pilot program that DreamCatcher ran at one of its schools.

And the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency has already invited the program to submit a proposal on moving their operation east.

“I have and I’m in deep talks with some of their senior officials about doing DreamCatcher fully in Nunavut,” said Silvertown.

There are 50 Grade 10 students in Igloolik and another 50 in Iqaluit waiting to participate in the program.

“Our roots are here in the Yukon and we’d like to allow Yukon to benefit from our program,” he said.

“But we need to look at our resources and limitations and if we have to go outside our borders of the Yukon, then that’s what’s going to happen.

“Nunavut likes this, we can easily go there.”

Silvertown co-founded the program with Beverly Sembsmoen, a member of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation.

After spending five years building the program, Sembsmoen has a hard time believing that it might leave the Yukon.

“It makes me sick to my stomach that the government of Nunavut recognizes the value of the program and they’ve only had one small offering,” said Sembsmoen on Friday.

“Everyone and their dog recognizes the value of this program except the Department of Education.”

Silvertown and Sembsmoen were at Arts Underground on Friday afternoon, holding an open house to show the Yukon public what the program is all about.

Also in attendance was Carcross/Tagish Chief Mark Wedge, various mentors and volunteers, and Rick Neilsen who sits on the organization’s board.

“If you provide the impetus to change a child’s mind to help them stay in school, that’s an incredible step forward for that child, the family, the Yukon and indeed for the country,” said Neilsen.

“I cannot, for the life of me, understand why something like this would not be snapped up.”

The Department of Education only wanted to have one spokesperson on this issue.

Therefore, requests to speak with teachers who had seen the effects of the program firsthand were denied.

Rouble was also unavailable for comment.

Contact Chris Oke at

chriso@yukon-news.com