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Wilson-Raybould encourages advocacy against status quo at Yukon education conference

‘If you want something to change, you have to do your part’
Jody Wilson-Raybould encouraged educators to fight for systemic change during her keynote address at the Yukon First Nation Education Directorate Conference on Jan. 2. (Mélanie Provencher/House of Commons Photo Services)

Jody Wilson-Raybould encouraged educators to fight for systemic change during her keynote address at the Yukon First Nation Education Directorate Conference on Jan. 20.

“The bottom line is to continue to work as hard as possible to change the institutions in this country,” Wilson-Raybould said over video conference.

“I pursued change of the status quo through all the roles that I held; I did this recognizing how hard it is to change the status quo and frustrated at the lack of progress,” Wilson-Raybould said. “But my strategy, as is the strategy for most Indigenous people, is to be persistent. We are resilient, our persistence has paid off. Change is happening.”

The second annual education conference took place Jan. 20 and 21 at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre, with 50 participants in person and the majority of attendees tuning in via Zoom.

Wilson-Raybould, Canada’s first Indigenous Justice Minister and Attorney General, was the opening keynote speaker. She currently serves as an independent Member of Parliament, after leaving the Liberal Party in the wake of the SNC-Lavalin affair in 2019.

During her address, Wilson-Raybould spoke of the “clashing of different worldviews” she encountered as an Indigenous woman and member of cabinet.

“I come from a community that supports concensus-based decision making; the best decision that will stand the test of time generationally,” she said.

The former minister explained that entering cabinet, she expected recognition of the value in diverse perspectives. Instead, she experienced marginalization and disregard for her worldview.

“I came with a huge host of expertise on Indigenous rights and, in spite of this expertise, I was still an Indigenous woman from a fishing community,” she said.

“I had a realization that we still have a long way to go in terms of racism and discrimination in this country.”

Wilson-Raybould told attendees she still believes in collaboration and consensus as mechanisms for driving systemic change in education. The Yukon’s structures of Indigenous self-governance lends “all of the ingredients” for educational autonomy, she said, adding that she is hopeful for a local Yukon First Nations school.

“The resources to fuel and build that school are going to involve tough conversations,” she said, adding that securing federal funding will be pivotal.

Consistency and vigilance are key to securing that funding, she said. Community leaders should advocate consistently that a First Nation school “is something that we all need or want in our communities.”

Wilson-Raybould said that holding true to traditional teachings has lent her strength in challenging times of advocacy. She recalled the advice of her grandmother, “If you want something to change, you have to do your part regardless of your fears and doubts.”

Instilling that traditional knowledge and pride in Indigneous students is an important tool that will help them succeed, she suggested.

“For every young Indigenous kid, however old you are, be proud of who you are, know where you come from, and know how important you are — not just to your community, but to the whole country,” Wilson-Raybould said.

Traditional teachings are also a foundation for achieving reconciliation in education.

“I see First Nations people in this country being self-determining, drawing down the necessary jurisdictions to exercise and control in a way that is consistent to our worldview of integration and collaboration between our people and all Canadians,” she said.

“The root to that is ensuring that we educate our young people that we continue to educate ourselves and we continue to educate Canadians more broadly about the dark shadows in our history.”

The two-day education conference followed Wilson-Raybould’s address with a number of seminars centering culturally-informed learning.

Many of the sessions focused on revitalizing First Nations language education in classrooms, as well as strategies for collaboration within communities and revamping assessment tools.

On Jan. 21, a student panel addressed attendees with personal stories about learning their language. They spoke of how language learning instilled confidence and helped them connect to their identities.

Another session focused on educational practices that have been successful in the Northwest Territories. They included the Educational Renewal consultation process, which promises to be the first step in a system-wide educational overhaul.

Another N.W.T. program cited was Northern Distance Learning, an online learning portal that provides academic courses otherwise unavailable at rural schools.

The Yukon First Nation Education Directorate was launched last summer in collaboration with the Council of Yukon First Nations. The directorate endeavours to “take more dramatic measures in order to gain control of the education of their children,” according to a statement released at launch.

Contact Gabrielle Plonka at