Referendum process set to decide on Yukon First Nations school board

Parents and other voters in several Yukon communities will get to decide in January whether they want their local school operated by a new First Nations school board.

5 school councils have opted for local vote to join new First Nations board

'Take a look at our data and our statistics. Our children are not faring well in the current system,' said Melanie Bennett, executive director of the Yukon First Nation Education Directorate. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)

Parents and other voters in several Yukon communities will get to decide in January whether they want their local school operated by a new First Nations school board.

A referendum process will be held for five school areas — in Old Crow, Haines Junction, Watson Lake, Ross River, and for Grey Mountain Elementary in Whitehorse.

Those five local school councils passed resolutions that have triggered the referendum process. The deadline to do so was Oct. 31.

It follows the announcement earlier this year of a framework agreement for a new, separate school board which was signed by the Yukon government and 10 of the territory's 14 First Nations. That agreement lays out the process for establishing the school board under the territory's Education Act.

Under the referendum process, any adult Canadian living in a school's attendance area or who has a child attending that school can cast a ballot. Voting will be overseen by Elections Yukon on behalf of Yukon's Education department.

"The actual question isn't finalized yet and approved, but will be something along the lines of, 'should this school form part of a Yukon First Nation school board?'" said Maxwell Harvey, chief electoral officer with Elections Yukon.

"So you only need one school to pass that referendum vote, to establish a school board. Any other schools that have a vote [of] 50 per cent-plus-one would be part of that same school board." 

The school in Ross River, Yukon. In January, voters in Ross River and several other Yukon communities will decide whether they want their local school to be operated by a new, separate First Nations school board. (Nancy Thomson/CBC)

Other school communities can still petition the education minister in order to be part of the January referendum process. A petition must be signed by at least 20 per cent of eligible voters in a school's attendance area, and must be submitted by Dec. 13. 

The referendum process will actually take more than a couple of weeks. The voting period will be between Jan. 11 and 27, 2022.

"School council elections have traditionally been relatively low-turnout. What we've tried to do with this referendum vote, and we will hope to carry it on in other elections for school councils and school boards, is to expand access to the vote," Harvey said. 

According to the Department of Education, a "yes" vote in a referendum would mean that the local school council would be dissolved, and the First Nations school board would run that school or schools. 

The new board would have responsibility for selecting staff including principals and teachers, approving school plans, providing educational programming for students, and establishing schools' operational policies. It would also manage funds provided by the Department of Education, and provide reports to the minister. 

Schools under the First Nation board would be open to all students. They would continue to "draw upon" the B.C. curriculum, according to a Department of Education news release, though the board "will decide on teaching materials, resources and approaches."

Maxwell Harvey, Yukon's chief electoral officer, says the referendum voting process will take place over a couple of weeks in January to encourage voter turnout. (Steve Silva/CBC)

The First Nations school board would be in place by the 2022-23 school year.

A "no" vote in the referendum will mean that the Department of Education will continue to run that school, with the local school council involved in some decision making.

'Paradigm shift'

The announcement of the First Nation School Board Framework Agreement last spring was heralded as a watershed moment by some Indigenous leaders in the territory.

Vuntut Gwitchin Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm called it "a turning point in history, both at a national and territorial level," and said it offered a potential "paradigm shift" for the many Indigenous students who have struggled under the current education system.

Melanie Bennett, executive director of the Yukon First Nations Education Directorate, agrees. Her organization was established last year to help the territory's First Nations assume more control over education.

"It's long overdue," Bennett said, about a First Nations board for Yukon.

"Take a look at our data and our statistics. Our children are not faring well in the current system."

Bennett admits to some reticence about the referendum process, when some schools' attendance areas might have a majority of non-Indigenous people. She calls that "intimidating," and said she's already had a lot of difficult conversations and heard many racist comments against the idea of a separate school board.

Dana Tizya-Tramm, chair of the Chiefs Committee on Education in Yukon, speaks at a news conference in June to announce an agreement with the territorial government to create a separate First Nations school board. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)

Still, Bennett says she's optimistic. She believes that a school system incorporating "both worldviews" is good for everybody.

"I just think that the opportunity is there. It's change — I totally recognize how difficult that is for some, but I firmly believe this will be for the better of all of our children in the territory," she said.

"I can keep putting the argument out there that this is going to be beneficial for all, but we just have to build it first and then they will see." 

With files from Leonard Linklater