Life at Gadzoosdaa: How students from Yukon communities go to high school

Many Yukon schools don’t offer classes past Grade 9. If students want a classroom experience, they move into a Whitehorse dorm in Grade 10.

Students from Carcross to Old Crow live at the student residence in Whitehorse

Cousins Cassie and Tamika Johnston are in their second year at Gadzoosdaa. (Jane Sponagle/CBC)

No matter where you are, there's no shortage of variety when observing hungry teenagers on a high school lunch break. Some kids are showing each other videos on their phones over chicken burgers and fries. Others go find a quiet spot for a few minutes before heading back to class. 

It's lunch time at the Gadzoosdaa Student Residence in Whitehorse. It's home to about 30 high school students from across the Yukon and Atlin, B.C.

Many Yukon schools don't offer classes past grade nine. If students want the classroom experience rather than completing high school through online courses, they can move into the dorm — relocating from their home community — in grade 10.

The closest community students come from is Carcross, located just over 70 kilometres away. The furthest is Old Crow, almost 800 kilometres from Whitehorse. 

It is still a big step for people to leave their home community to go to school.-  Benita Parkkari, Gadzoosdaa housemaster 

Cousins Tamika and Cassie Johnston are originally from Teslin. This is their second year staying at Gadzoosdaa. To them, coming to Whitehorse for high school was a no-brainer.

Tamika said she was nervous when she first moved into Gadzoosdaa, but now in grade 11, day-to-day life at the dorm is pretty routine.

There are perks to being in grade 11. Last year, Tamika and Cassie had good attendance, so they got to choose the rooms they live in this year.

Gadzoosdaa Student Residence is home to about 30 high school students from across Yukon and even Atlin, B.C. If students are attending F.H. Collins, they only have a short walk to school. (Jane Sponagle/CBC)

Cassie took CBC on a tour of her single room in the girls' wing. It's sparsely decorated because even though she is in Whitehorse for school during the week, on weekends she and Tamika head home to Teslin.

The room is tidy. The bed is made. Clothes are put away. Even her slippers are lined up neatly by her desk.

Housemaster Benita Parkkari is impressed and said Cassie might get a Starbucks card for her efforts. Parkkari said she's trying to introduce more incentives for students to keep their rooms tidy along with other things around the residence.


Gadzoosdaa is a bright and open ranch-style building. As you walk through the front doors, there's a sunny TV room,  the walls covered in photo collages of previous classes.

The building breaks off into two wings — the boys on one side and the girls on the other. The only common areas for coed mingling are the TV and dining rooms.

A portrait of Virginia Smarch hangs in the foyer of Gadzoosdaa. The residence is named after the Elder who was known as 'Gadzoosdaa' in Tlingit. (Jane Sponagle/CBC)

Gadzoosdaa opened in 1990, replacing two separate boys and girls dormitories.

The residence is named after Virginia Smarch, who was known as "Gadzoosdaa." She was a respected Elder of the Teslin Tlingit Council (Eagle Clan) and taught Tlingit at the Teslin school.

Parkkari said one of the biggest challenges for students new to Whitehorse is culture shock.

"One of my young lads comes from a school of maybe 10 kids, and then he goes to a school with 700 at F.H. Collins," she said.

"Just having to go away from your community, it is still a big step for people to leave their home community to go to school."

Parkkari said students like the freedom and independence of living at the dorm, but they also miss having their family and friends around.

'Not a residential school'

Many students who stay at Gadzoosdaa are Indigenous. It's hard to talk about Indigenous students going to school away from home without thinking of residential school.

"It's not a residential school. Kids can go home," said Parkkari.

She said some students are descendents of residential school survivors.

"There's no separation from families. As much as families want to be here, they're here. It's kinda like a private school." 

Parkkari said parents are welcome to visit and stay for dinner if they are in town. 

Almost every student has a cellphone, she added, and parents keep in touch with their children frequently thanks to texting.

"We're really encouraging that, keep your language, keep in contact with your parents," she said.

Benita Parkkari has been the housemaster at Gadzoosdaa for almost two years. Before that, she was a counsellor at F.H. Collins High School in Whitehorse. (Kiyoshi Maguire/CBC)

Parkkari also said they try to keep Indigenous culture in the building as much as possible.

A welcome sign in the building's foyer says 'welcome' or 'it's nice to see you' in all of the Yukon's Indigenous languages.

"We had carving last spring, we have drum materials, we've had elders in the building," she said.

Parkkari said she also relies on the education support workers at the high schools, some of whom are from the same First Nations as the students. 

There is also a First Nations wing at F.H. Collins, where many students living at Gadzoosdaa attend. Parkkari said the wing offers traditional activities and lunches.

Cassie and Tamika patiently answered questions about life at Gadzoosdaa, although they seemed doubtful if their high school experience is interesting.

Leaving Teslin to go to high school seems pretty routine to the cousins. Right now, they just want to get to class.


Jane Sponagle is reporting in Halifax for the summer of 2022. She is also the Current Affairs producer for CBC Yukon based in Whitehorse. Over the past 10 years, Jane has lived and reported in all three territories.