Nunavut students say 'there's a gap' between territory's school standards and rest of Canada

Students from Nunavut say schools in the territory have a lower standard of education than schools in other parts of Canada, and that's "unfair."

Lilly Parr was top of her class in Cape Dorset and now she's struggling to keep up in an Ontario school

Christine Tootoo of Rankin Inlet is in her second year at the University of Winnipeg taking Indigenous Studies. 'I didn’t feel as prepared as students who had gone to high school in some other provinces,' she says. (submitted by Christine Tootoo )

Students from Nunavut say schools in the territory have a lower standard of education than schools in other parts of Canada, and that's "unfair."

"There are actually students like me who want to learn more," says Grade 11 student Lilly Parr.

Parr discovered the disparity between her education in Cape Dorset and the level of education in other parts of Canada when she started school in Paris, Ont., this fall.

Lilly Parr from Cape Dorset, Nunavut, is now attending high school in Paris, Ont. (submitted by Lilly Parr)

In Cape Dorset, Parr was at the top of her class. Now, as a student at the Paris District High School, she's struggling to keep up.

"The education system here is more advanced," says Parr.

Despite her previous high grades, Parr is not able to take some Grade 11-level courses in her new school. She's taking Grade 10 math and English so she can catch up to her classmates.

"I knew it was going to be challenging but I know that I can make it through if I believe in myself," she said.

'A no-brainer'

Cape Dorset's Peter Pitseolak High School burned down in the fall of 2015. 'It was very hard for all of us students and teachers and parents because it affected a whole community,' says Lilly Parr. (submitted)

Parr was a student at Peter Pitseolak high school, until the school burned down last September. Without a high school building, class schedules were re-jigged to allow high school students to time-share classroom space with elementary students, creating chaos for students, teachers and parents.

"It was very hard for all of us students and teachers and parents because it affected a whole community," says Parr.

That's when Parr decided to try to finish her high school education in Ontario.

"It was Lilly's idea," says Lisa Golding, who was a teacher in Cape Dorset from 2010 to 2013.

Goldring had told her students that they could contact her if they ever needed any help. Parr took her teacher at her word and asked her if she could come and live with her in Ontario in order to complete high school.

Lisa and Josh Goldring agreed to house Lilly Parr while she completed her high school diploma in Paris, Ont. 'As an educator how could I say no,' says Lisa Goldring. (submitted by Lisa Goldring)

"It was a no-brainer," says Golding.

"As an educator, how could I say no? I knew Lilly was driven and very passionate about her school."

It took Parr months of working and saving to raise the money needed to travel to Ontario. ​Goldring says Parr is now working hard to catch up to her classmates, spending hours each night poring over assignments.

"I have to sit down with her and re-read some of the work [but] she's fully capable and her comprehension is there."

Parr says she wishes that all students in Nunavut had the benefit of the education she's getting, but she knows not every student has the money or support system to move away for school.

She says she intends to make the best of her opportunities, and plans to attend Nunavut Sivuniksavut, a college program designed for Inuit youth. After that she wants to go to university but hasn't decided on a major yet.

'There's a gap'

Rankin Inlet's Christine Tootoo is in her second year at the University of Winnipeg taking Indigenous Studies. Tootoo says it was her two years at Nunavut Sivuniksavut that helped boost her confidence and give her the skills to tackle university.

"That's what got me to where I am today," she says.

Parr hard at work. (submitted by Lilly Parr)

But Tootoo says her first year in university was still a challenge.

"I didn't feel as prepared as students who had gone to high school in some other provinces," she says.

She struggled with the technical and political terms used in her classes as well as the amount of homework for which she was responsible.

"Our literacy rates could be definitely worked on and improved," says Tootoo.

"There's a gap. It isn't up to par with southern literacy rates."  

Tootoo started high school in Rankin Inlet and completed high school in Iqaluit. 

"The level of education that I got in Iqaluit was a bit higher than that in Rankin Inlet," says Tootoo.

Rankin Inlet had a smaller variety of courses available to students as well as fewer extracurricular activities, adds Tootoo.

Tootoo says more Inuit teachers should be trained to teach in Nunavut — teachers who are rooted in the territory — instead of relying on teachers from the south who come and go every few years.

She also suggests integrating Inuit culture and history more concretely into a made-in-Nunavut curriculum, rather than relying on a curriculum from Alberta.

"In high school we don't get to learn a lot about ourselves — our own very recent history," says Tootoo.

"I think it would help boost the youth's confidence."

Criticism forces us to 'do better'

John MacDonald, the assistant deputy minister in the Department of Education says his department is doing its best to listen to students and bridge the gap in Nunavut's education system.

Hearing criticism from students motivates John MacDonald to 'do better.' (CBC)
"One of our department's priorities is trying to find a way to ensure the same level of education across the territory," says MacDonald.

He admits there are limits to the types and variety of courses that can be offered in smaller communities. 

Hearing criticism from students motivates him to "do better."

"If there's a student that didn't get that support than we have to take a hard look at ourselves as an organization." 


Sima Sahar Zerehi is a reporter with CBC North. She started her career in journalism with the ethnic press working for a Canadian-based Farsi language newspaper. Her CBC journey began as a regular commentator with CBC radio's Metro Morning. Since then she's worked with CBC in Montreal, Toronto and now Iqaluit.

with files from Jordan Konek