Leaving family and culture behind for an education unavailable at home

Laney Beaulieu left her small community of Fort Resolution, N.W.T., for university in Ontario last fall. She's the only person from her graduating class who went to university last year.

Laney Beaulieu is working to become the 1st geneticist to come from Fort Resolution, N.W.T.

Laney Beaulieu at her home in Fort Resolution on the shores of Great Slave Lake. Beaulieu left her community this fall to study pre-medical science at Western University in London, Ont. She's the only student from her graduating class to go to university. (Mitch Wiles/CBC)

About 3,000 kilometres separates Laney Beaulieu's home in Fort Resolution, N.W.T., from Western University in London, Ont. As she winds up her first year in university, she says it's like another country entirely.

Beaulieu moved to London from "Fort Res" last fall to study pre-medical science. The 17-year-old Métis teen dreams of becoming a geneticist.

In September, she moved from her mostly-Indigenous community of around 500 people on the south shores of Great Slave Lake to a university where some of her classes have nearly twice that many people.

One thing sticks out after about seven months of living away from home: taking the bus.

"Riding the bus is the funnest thing ever. I'd rather take the bus than anything," said Beaulieu.

"A lot of my friends think it's weird, but we never had a bus in Fort Res. You see all these people. You can pull a string, and it stops."  

And then there's the sea of strangers.

"In Res, it's people you've seen a million times before, they're your relatives. But here, you go into a lecture, there's 800 people there and they all look really different," she said.

"People might think it's creepy, but I love seeing the different people."

These experiences may be common for small-town teens across Canada, but they're not so common for teens from Fort Resolution. Beaulieu is the only person from her graduating class of eight who went to university this past fall.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls for an end to the achievement gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students in Canada. But the odds are often stacked against many Indigenous students in the N.W.T. 

Closing the education gap and getting more Indigenous students into university are two of the 94 calls to action from the TRC. Students, parents and teachers in the Northwest Territories are working to close it themselves, with little help from the federal government.

Laney Beaulieu and her grandmother Gail in their home in Fort Resolution, days before Laney left her hometown of 500 people. (Mitch Wiles/CBC)

Education gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students 

Earning a high school diploma isn't enough to get into university for many students in the N.W.T.'s small communities.

Courses like biology, physics and chemistry are not always taught in every grade at community schools. Many students struggle to pass standardized tests in foundational subjects like math.

A CBC News analysis of territorial test scores found that in schools outside of Yellowknife, nearly half of the Grade 9 students scored "below acceptable" (below 50 per cent) on the standardized math test in 2016. In comparison, only a third (32 per cent) of Grade 9 students in Yellowknife failed the same test. 

It should be noted that for privacy reasons the records in some smaller school divisions in Ndilo, Dettah and the Tlicho communities were not included. That's because there are fewer than six students in each of those Grade 9 classes. This should have a marginal impact on the results as there are at most 18 students missing from the results.

Students with big dreams like Beaulieu often have to upgrade their coursework on their own — and on their own dime — to begin university on an equal footing with their southern peers.  

"It's hard for people, especially from small communities to visualize going to university, or see it as a worthwhile experience," she said.

She spent hours learning on her own, taking online courses in addition to her classwork because her courses at the Deninu School in Fort Resolution weren't up to the university standard.

"I've had to be an independent learner," she said. "A lot of my classes I've taught myself."

Fort Resolution sits on the shores of Great Slave Lake. The sound of the waves lapping up on shore is impossible to miss. (Mitch Wiles/CBC)

In order to get into the e-learning program, Beaulieu needed to pay tuition. That money was refunded at the end of the year, but she says other students may not be able to afford to pay the money up front.

"It's a lack of resources, a lack of access to the courses you need to get into university," Beaulieu said.

"You could do what I did, but not everyone is willing to do that. It's a lot of work."

Calculus and physics gave Beaulieu the most trouble in her first year at university. Those courses weren't available to her in her last year of high school in Fort Resolution.

Though the results from both elementary and secondary school students have been increasing over the past decade — especially in small communities like Fort Resolution — there is still a gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students in the N.W.T. 

The gap is wide enough to be considered "significant" by the Northwest Territories' Education, Culture and Employment department in planning documents for 2017-2018. 

The N.W.T. Education Department reports that across the territory, the graduation rate for Indigenous students is below 60 per cent, compared to more than 80 per cent for non-Indigenous students. 

Laney Beaulieu swapped living on the windswept shores of Great Slave Lake for the manicured lawns at Western University's London, Ont., campus. (Colin Butler/CBC)

Lasting effects of residential schools 

Intergenerational trauma from the residential school system plays a large role in keeping students from doing well in school, Beaulieu said. For many families, the scars of colonialism show up in alcoholism and family dysfunction.

Beaulieu sees those wounds in her own community, and said it's holding other students back. They have difficulty seeing academic success as an option because they don't have enough positive role models in the community, she said.

"You could have a world class facility in Fort Resolution, but if you don't have the support from home or the right social and economic conditions, the kids aren't going to succeed."

Teachers cycling in and out of the community doesn't help either.

Transitional employment is a fact of life in the North, but Beaulieu said it's discouraging for students re-making those connections year after year.

"It's like there is a different school every year," she said.

"There's not much stability or routine. Students have to come in and get used to new teachers and new teaching styles. Every teacher is different, right?"

Laney Beaulieu shows off her backyard in Fort Resolution before she moved away. She said it was one of her favourite places in the world. (Mitch Wiles/CBC)

Closing the gap?

The N.W.T. government said it's aware of these issues. But since kindergarten to Grade 12 schooling is the responsibility of the territory, it's left to solve the problem on its own without help or extra funds from the federal government.  

The territory's Education Department is in the middle of a 10-year review of the education system and promises to roll out a renewed high school structure and draft new graduation requirements, according to its planning documents.

E-learning is also being continued and the 2018 budget proposed $1.6 million to expand the program across the territory. 

In the classroom, teachers are trying to encourage students' cultural identity and make school a positive place. Developing this type of curriculum is another call from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Dorothy Beaulieu — a distant relative of Laney's — attended residential school herself, then spent decades as a nurse and teacher in Fort Resolution. For her, teaching respect for Indigenous culture is the only way there can be reconciliation in the classroom.

"You have to nurture the kids," she said.

"When I was growing up, I was talked down to, told I was no good. You can't do that with Aboriginal kids. I always tried to build them up."

Kate Powell, the principal at Fort Resolution's K-12 Deninu School. The school uses the Dene Kede curriculum, which includes Chipewyan language classes. (Mitch Wles/CBC)

At Fort Resolution's K-12 Deninu School, educators follow the N.W.T.'s Dene Kede curriculum. It includes Chipewyan language classes and combines First Nations knowledge in education, said Kate Powell, who's been principal at the school for the past eight years.

"Pride and identity are huge," Powell said.

"We talk about our students walking in two worlds. They do walk in their traditional world, but they also have to walk in the modern world."

With many families only a generation removed from residential school, educators say this relationship is critical.

"When students understand who they are, their families are part of their education, their culture is honoured and traditions are practised in school, it happens very naturally. Their confidence increases," said Angela James, a Métis educator who spent 12 years as a principal at Kalemi Dene School in Ndilo, N.W.T.

"They begin to sit up more straighter, they listen."

James enrolled her own children in the Kalemi Dene school where she taught and instilled a sense of pride in her children.

She recently completed her PhD at Simon Fraser University in B.C., with a focus on using traditional knowledge from elders to guide Indigenous education in the Northwest Territories.

Her research concluded an education system that respects Indigenous language and culture can close the gap — the main theme running through the calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's section on education.

Successful 1st year for Laney

Laney Beaulieu (far left) is succeeding at school in London, Ont. She credits her love of learning and support from her family for the successful transition. (Submitted by Laney Beaulieu)

For Beaulieu, the first year of school has been a success. 

She's taken a full course load with courses in physics, chemistry, calculus and First Nations studies on her plate.  

"It hasn't been a hard transition at all, though it is more difficult for sure," she said. 

She's made friends and connected with other Indigenous students on campus. She said she has the connections and support to compete with anyone else in Canada.

"I have no regrets," she said.

"I'd do it all over again."

This story is part of our project Beyond 94: Truth and Reconciliation in Canada. Read more stories in the series and look for further coverage this week.