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Yukon First Nations launch their own education directorate

Directorate will advocate for Yukon First Nations students, work on creating own school board
Shadelle Chambers, Council of Yukon First Nations executive director, from left, CYFN Grand Chief Peter Johnston, Vuntut Gwitchin Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm, and Melaine Bennett, Yukon First Nations Education Directorate executive director speak to media about a new independent education directorate in Whitehorse on Aug.13. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

Yukon First Nations students in the territory now have a new advocacy body that officials say will push for their success within the existing education system, but also aim to create new and culturally-responsive ways of learning.

Members of the Council of Yukon First Nations (CYFN) and the Chief’s Committee on Education announced the creation of the Yukon First Nations Education Directorate (YFNED) at an Aug. 13 press conference in Whitehorse.

The directorate was born out of the dissolving of CYFN’s education department and is a stand-alone organization that currently employs 12 First Nations education advocates. Among its goals are pushing for the inclusion of more Yukon First Nations content and culture within the Yukon school curriculum, supporting students and creating a Yukon First Nations school board as well as a Yukon First Nations school in Whitehorse.

“It has been a vision of our people for decades now, not only to have an institution that is reflective of who we are, but it is engrained in regards to our traditions, our ways of doing and being,” CYFN Grand Chief Peter Johnston told media. “So today is an excellent day for education and it’s a great day for First Nations education in particular.”

Vuntut Gwitchin Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm, the chair of the Chief’s Committee on Education, described the day as “auspicious.”

“Here at the Yukon First Nations Education Directorate, and as the chair of the chief’s committee on education, we have unwavering faith in our people and we believe in their direction which has now broken the colonial cycles of education that we have been beholden to in the Yukon,” he said.

“… No longer shall we just be beholden to classrooms under fluorescent lights, but as we expand the education opportunities for First Nations youth, we are bringing them full circle, back to where we had begun, to the advanced technologies and ways of knowing and understanding from our greatest teacher, which is the land.”

Melaine Bennett, YFNED’s executive director and former senior policy analyst for CYFN’s education department, said that the directorate’s work encompasses much more than just incorporating First Nations content into the existing Yukon government education systems.

“It’s about the actual systems and how they work and providing the bridge and a path so there will be an understanding between the two world views — I think that’s the first and foremost important thing,” she said, adding that ensuring the strengths and goals of Yukon First Nations students are nurtured is also crucial.

“It’s not always about getting to post-secondary, but it’s about being a really strong community member, and, how do we foster that for our children?” she said. “So my biggest hope with it is that it will affect a change for our children, that they can find their success and become really, really strong community members.”

Tizya-Tramm said that the directorate will be seeking a “paradigm shift” in how education is approached and delivered, and what students will take away from their educations.

“They are rooted with fluency in their traditional language and knowledge of their culture and history, and confidently living side-by-side with others in a multilingual and multicultural Yukon society,” he said.

“That they are lifelong learners and First Nations citizens that will empower present and future generations, that they know the traditional, cultural way of life through seeing, knowing and doing… This is how they enrich and sustain their identities and beliefs, that they know and practice their traditional laws and values and morals and that these have an important place in their education.”

“We will always have Yukon First Nations students in the Yukon government system as well, so it’s important that they have advocacy as well in this level and assuring them of their due process,” he added.

Federal funding for CYFN’s education department, which was dissolved at the end of March, will now be channeled towards the YFNED. Some of its funding will also come from the territorial government, with some initiatives, such as a nutrition program for students in rural communities and the education advocates positions funded via Jordan’s Principle.

Contact Jackie Hong at