Yukon First Nations consider 'Indigenous-led' school

The Council of Yukon First Nations (CYFN) is discussing the idea of a separate Indigenous-led school in Yukon. Grand Chief Peter Johnston says it could be equivalent to the territory's French or Catholic schools in setting its own curriculum.

Fewer Indigenous students finish high school in Yukon, prompting calls for change

Yukon's self-governing First Nations have the right to 'draw down' matters related to education but so far none have done it. 14 Yukon First Nations are attending a forum in Whitehorse this week to discuss the possibility. (Stephanie Brown / Council of Yukon First Nations)

The Council of Yukon First Nations (CYFN) is talking about something that would be new to Yukon — a separate, Indigenous-led school. 

14 Yukon First Nations are taking part in a "visioning session" in Whitehorse this week.

Under Yukon's Umbrella Final Agreement, self-governing Yukon First Nations have the right to "draw down" responsibility for education for their citizens.

"I think it's important that we have an identity, and especially when it comes to the education system and First Nation students, I think it's important that they have an option," said CYFN Grand Chief Peter Johnston.

"You either go to the French, the Catholic, or even the First Nation school. I think it's well overdue in the sense of our existence in the territory." 

Johnston says an Indigenous-led school could be equivalent to the territory's French or Catholic schools in setting its own curriculum. The idea could include an Indigenous-run boarding school.

"We really haven't fleshed out all the details. The idea is to look at the possibility ... The location hasn't even been discussed." 

Territorial government statistics from 2015 show the rate for high school graduation is 57 per cent among Indigenous students, compared to 81 per cent for the non-Indigenous population. 

Johnston says those rates need to improve.

"Unfortunately the system's been failing the children," Johnston said. "It's very important we build an environment for our First Nation children to find success." 

Language 'a key component'

Johnston says courses could be taught in Indigenous languages, and says Yukon's French-language system is one inspiration.

"The language is a very key component to this," he said. 

He says students would learn "everything from moose hide tanning to cutting fish to the importance and significance of environmental stewardship. 

"I think that's an opportunity to create sciences, social studies, physical education, all in the First Nations' spirit and intent — to be able to have an opportunity to pass on our traditions, our language, to all Canadians, for that matter."

One example in Nova Scotia

The "visioning" conference — attended by representatives from the Yukon government — is hearing this week from Darren Googoo, director of education for the Mi'kmaq nation in Membertou, Nova Scotia.   

20 years ago, the First Nation of about 1,400 people took on responsibility for schooling from the provincial government. Googoo says the school has since incorporated the local language, and seen more graduations. 

"We never have to be anybody else. We can live and breathe who we are as First Nations people all the time," Googoo said.

"And I think that's the opportunity here in the Yukon. [Students] can be in a school environment where they never have to be anybody but themselves." 

Yukon's updated curriculum 'not enough' 

The Yukon government has recently updated its curriculum, adding more Indigenous content. It's also added material about residential schools to students' education following the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Roberta Hager, co-chair of the First Nations Education Commission which advises the CYFN, says that is not enough. 

"We would like all students to know our language, we would like them to know their culture, we would like them to know their identity and all their history from our ancestral roots," she said. 

"Currently, we want to see what First Nations are thinking and what parents are thinking," Hager said.

The idea of an Indigenous school does not yet have a budget.