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'I shouldn't have to advocate this hard': Whitehorse mom frustrated by lack of inclusive education resources

Stacey McDiarmid says she's constantly having to meet with Yukon education officials to advocate for her children, who have autism, to ensure they have their educational needs met. Her son has missed more than 200 days of school in the past three years because he needs one-on-one care.

Stacey McDiarmid says she's constantly fighting to ensure her children with autism have educational needs met

Whitehorse mother Stacey McDiarmid says she's tired of having to fight to ensure that her children, who have autism, receive the educational supports they need. One of her children has missed more than 200 days of school over the past three years because educational assistants aren't always available. (Stacey McDiarmid)

A Whitehorse mother is tired of what she says is a constant uphill battle with the Yukon education department to get her children the resources they need to succeed in school. 

Stacey McDiarmid has four children with autism, all of whom attend Hidden Valley Elementary School and require different supports including educational assistants and learning assistant teachers. 

While the school has been supportive, McDiarmid said she's had dozens of meetings with territorial education officials to push for funding and resources — in particular, for her son with higher needs.

Over the past three years, McDiarmid said her son has missed more than 200 days of class because he can't meaningfully participate in school unless he has one-on-one support — something that isn't always available due to staffing shortages or because educational assistants working with him leave for higher-paying teaching positions. 

A recent letter from McDiarmid's lawyer to Indigenous Services Canada appealing a decision to deny Jordan's Principle funding for a special education teacher says McDiarmid's son has had nine different educational assistants since 2018. 

"It's frustrating," McDiarmid, a Tr'ondëk Hwëchin citizen, said in an interview Jan. 10. 

"Why should a parent have to advocate this hard? I shouldn't have to advocate this hard. Why should it be this hard for my son to get an education? ... How is that equitable?"

Professional, community groups 'disappointed' in lack of progress

McDiarmid spoke to the CBC shortly before the Yukon legislative assembly's standing committee on public accounts was set to hold the first of two hearings on the government's progress in addressing a 2019 Auditor General of Canada report on the territory's education system. 

The report found that the Yukon's education department was not doing enough to assess or address long-standing gaps in student outcomes, provide inclusive programming, and ensure that Yukon First Nations culture and languages were properly represented within curriculums. 

The territorial government accepted all seven recommendations contained in the report; in a September 2021 letter to the standing committee on public accounts in anticipation of the public hearings, deputy education minister Nicole Morgan wrote that despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, "we've continued working with education partners to engage in significant system renewal."

Yukon deputy education minister Nicole Morgan in a photo from 2017. Morgan recently wrote that despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, "we've continued working with education partners to engage in significant system renewal." (Steve Hossack/CBC)

A report submitted with the letter highlighted several initiatives being undertaken by the department, including working with the Chiefs Committee on Education to establish a Yukon First Nation School Board and completing a review on inclusive education. Other actions include developing an education performance plan and providing additional funding to the Yukon Native Language Centre to work toward providing more language programming in schools. 

However, a number of professional and community groups who submitted written comments in advance of the standing committee's hearings paint a less optimistic picture. 

"We hoped the alarms raised in the 2019 Auditor General's report would result in some immediate positive changes for students, schools and parents as well as with interactions with partner groups," reads a letter signed by the Yukon Association of Education Professionals, Autism Yukon, the LDAY Centre for Learning and the Association of Yukon School Councils, Boards & Committees.

"We are disappointed that in the two years since the Department of Education received the report, we see no substantive changes for our students."

Meanwhile, a letter from the Chiefs Committee on Education said it was "deeply concerned that despite a multitude of efforts of collaboration from Yukon First Nations" and the committee, it was seeing the education department "continue to undertake a unilateral path forward consistent with the [department's] response to the 2009 AG report which resulted in little change, if any, for Indigenous students."

"We see no real commitment to collaboration to address the issues raised in the AG report," the letter reads.

'It's not getting any better any time soon'

For McDiarmid, the shortcomings hit close to home — she described her son, a Yukon First Nations child with disabilities, as being amongst "the most vulnerable of children." 

"He already has the factors which put him at a disadvantage ... [The education department is] making him more vulnerable by not acting and not making these changes," McDiarmid said. 

"They are perpetrating the systemic abuses that have continued to happen. It just doesn't stop." 

On top of meeting with education officials to advocate for her children, McDiarmid said she's continuing to fight for Jordan's Principle funding, working with the territory's child and youth advocate and taking her son's case to the Yukon education appeal tribunal, an independent body which hears appeals of decisions made by schools, school councils or the education department. 

While she said she would be paying attention to the standing committee on public accounts' hearings, set to take place on Jan. 12 and 19, McDiarmid said she was also tired of reports, reviews and studies — like the groups that provided written comments, she said she wanted to see action.

"It's not getting any better any time soon, because [the education department is] just basically toeing the line —  they're grabbing the life vest and hoping that they're going to be able to float through it," she said. "They're not actually saying, 'Hey, how can we repair the hole in this boat?' Instead, they're saying, 'Okay, let's keep putting Band-Aids on it.'"

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