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Grade 4 students from Elijah Smith Elementary School play traditional games at a salmon camp on Ta’an Kwach'an Council territory last October. The camp was organized by the Yukon First Nation Education Directorate, an institution that's now just over a year old.

Photography by Alistair Maitland/The Globe and Mail

A Grade 4 student at Jack Hulland Elementary School, in Whitehorse, pockets a fish eyeball as his class finishes its hourlong stint at culture camp. The group learned to filet Arctic char, sat in a canvas-wall tent listening to elders explain the lifecycle of salmon and munched on freshly fried bannock around a fire.

It’s a scene that would’ve been unheard of until recently – one made possible by the fledgling Yukon First Nation Education Directorate.

The directorate, steered by a Chiefs Committee on Education, was launched just over a year ago in response to an education system that continues to fail First Nation students.

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Two damning auditor-general reports, in 2009 and 2019, found Yukon’s education department still has not addressed “long-standing gaps in student outcomes between First Nations and other Yukon students ... including lower high school completion rates.”

“The education system is archaic,” says elder and directorate member Lorraine Stick, frying up bannock for the Jack Hulland students. “We need a new one.”

Bannock fries in a pan at the salmon camp.

Yukon – where more than 30 per cent of students are First Nations – remains one of few jurisdictions in Canada operating without school boards.

Its education department receives an average annual federal budget of $200-million. Of that, the directorate found, $35,000 per student goes to French-language education and $21,000 to mainstream English education. Only $1,700 per student is earmarked for First Nation education initiatives.

“The department has responsibilities and commitments to provide education programs that reflect Yukon First Nations culture and languages,” the 2019 auditor’s report says. “It did not do enough to create a partnership with Yukon First Nations that would allow it to fully develop and deliver such programs.”

In June, after months of pressure from the First Nation Education Directorate, and many strained meetings, the Yukon government agreed to establish a First Nation School Board, paving the way for all Yukon schools that sign on to negotiate – under the territory’s Education Act – their own funding agreements, and oversee hiring, curriculum development and operations.

Already, the directorate has a staff of more than 50, including mental wellness workers, speech and language pathologists, pediatricians, occupational therapists, early-learning teams and First Nation advocates hosting culture camps like the one at Jack Hulland.

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Students from F.H. Collins Secondary School practice archery at the camp.

Before, cultural programming was often left to a school’s Native language teacher, if there was one, former Jack Hulland education assistant Kim Harper says. “It was very limited, and voluntary.” Ms. Harper now works as a First Nation education advocate for the directorate, helping teachers run fish camps, moose-hide tanning camps, beading workshops and traditional medicine making. Last fall, she invited an elder to Jack Hulland, with his traps and glossy lynx and wolf furs, to share trapping stories.

Among the Indigenous population there remains a deep distrust of schools, says Ms. Harper’s boss, Rebecca Bradford-Andrew, team lead of the directorate’s First Nation education advocates. Many students are second- or third-generation survivors of residential schools. The recent discoveries of children’s remains at the sites of these institutions in British Columbia and Saskatchewan only confirms what most First Nations already knew.

“It can be hard to even get parents through the door,” Ms. Bradford-Andrew says as she dishes out fish chowder to Jack Hulland students. Her team of elders, advocates and junior advocates are there to support parents, teachers and students.

Many of the kids are in “super-vulnerable situations,” she says. “So is it just tutoring they need? It’s never just tutoring.” The advocates don’t sit down with students in an office, Ms. Bradford-Andrew adds. “Instead, they might go throw a line in the Yukon River and try to catch some fish, make bannock together, go berry picking or for an ice cap at Timmy’s.”

One of the children the advocates connected with hadn’t left their bedroom for six months. Another hadn’t spoken for close to a year. “There is so much loss with these kids,” Ms. Bradford-Andrew says. “They lose people in their family, or the family splits and they go to live with Grandma and they lose their sense of home, who they are or where they belong. How do you get through all this and develop coping skills, and get your brain in a space for learning?”

At the camp, students watch Teslin Tlingit Council elder Clara Jules as she cleans and prepares salmon. Before the education directorate, programs like these were more limited in scope, but now there are resources to teach activities like fish preparation, moose-hide tanning and beading.

A young boy stands alone by the fence, watching the Jack Hulland culture camp activities. Ms. Bradford-Andrew offers him bannock, but he doesn’t take any. He is invited to the fire but doesn’t come. The rest of the class is crowded around Gus Morberg, another of the directorate’s advocates, who is slicing into a fat Arctic char. As his thin knife follows the hard bone around the gills, Mr. Morberg tells the kids how important it is to respect animals. “Don’t waste meat,” he says.

“What’s that black slimy thing?” one student asks as Mr. Morberg carefully cuts around the guts. “I was told by an elder it’s the pancreas,” he replies, going on to explain the anatomy of the fish, pulling out the swim bladder, which pops like a balloon when punctured. As the students gather around the fire, talking and eating, the boy by the fence wanders off, trailed by one of the school’s education assistants.

“We can’t lose another generation of kids,” former Yukon school superintendent Greg Storey says. “We have to turn the ministry of education upside down.” Mr. Storey is the directorate’s postsecondary navigator. “But it’s impossible to talk about postsecondary opportunities,” he says, “because there are not enough kids doing well enough to attend postsecondary.” (The auditor found the education department was “misleading” Yukoners by inflating the territory’s graduation rate – not counting students who dropped out before Grade 12.)

“This is an opportunity to reshape the education system,” says Yukon’s new Education Minister, Jeanie McLean. “Because right now there is grave inequity.” Ms. McLean, who is Tahltan, had two sons struggle through Yukon schools. “I had to fight for their success in a category of low expectations,” she says.

For more than 40 years, report after report has found less than 50 per cent of Yukon First Nation students operating at or above their grade level, compared to 80 per cent of non-Indigenous ones. Ms. McLean stresses the importance of partnerships, and says working with the Chiefs Committee on Education is “a high priority,” though Yukon’s government does not fund the new directorate. Instead, it relies heavily on funding from Jordan’s Principle, a federal initiative launched in 2007 to ensure First Nation children have equal access to the services they need.

In its first year, the directorate’s advocates supported more than 1,000 parents, teachers and students. On top of its cultural programming, the directorate runs on-the-land summer camps, and come fall it’s starting a First Nation Academy – allowing high-school students, regardless of heritage, to study traditional subjects through an Indigenous lens.

It’s also running early-learning programs for new parents across the territory, has hot breakfast and lunch programs in all Whitehorse schools, and has teamed up with the food rescue organization Second Harvest to give away more than 60,000 pounds of frozen salmon to Yukon First Nation families, as well as some 1,200 Christmas hampers. Responding to community needs, the directorate established a mobile therapeutic unit that travels with occupational therapists, trauma counsellors and allied health specialists, including optometrists, who’ve already screened more than 140 students and fitted 40 with glasses. Some of those students had made it to Grade 5 with massive vision impairments. Its wellness team also connects with kids outside school, building trust through projects like murals, mask workshops and drum making.

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A Kwanlin Dün family gets a frozen salmon from the education directorate's Ofelia Javar in Whitehorse this past June.

“The auditor-general reports clearly outline systemic failures for Indigenous students,” says Chiefs Committee chair Dana Tizya-Tramm, Chief of the Vuntut Gwitchin. “And nothing ever changed – not until the Yukon First Nation Education Directorate.”

In Mr. Tizya-Tramm’s isolated community of Old Crow, it wasn’t that long ago that RCMP showed up with dog teams and took children away to residential school. “Imagine an entire community with no children,” says Mr. Tizya-Tramm, whose mother was taken. “This was the beginning of education in Yukon.”

Today, Old Crow struggles with suicide, addiction and generations of trauma. Yukon’s education department is mandated to fly a counsellor up to the local school every few months. But for more than a year, no one came, Mr. Tizya-Tramm says. “We have students as old as 10 who can’t read, dealing with major issues like losing parents or a loved one,” he says. “We are dealing with three grades in one classroom, not nearly enough teachers and high turnover.” The chief himself doesn’t have a high-school diploma. “I was completely failed by the education system,” he says. “I was smart, but there was nobody there to ask me why I wasn’t succeeding, why I wasn’t doing my homework and what my home life was like – nobody.”

Under the new First Nation school board agreement, Mr. Tizya-Tramm is reimagining education for his people. “You will see our culture camp, which is now just a one-month program, become our school system, with our elders involved in our children’s education on the land,” he says. “We will not just be educating students. We will be graduating knowledge holders, because Indigenous ways of education taught individuals how to be a family member and a member of society, not just the square root of 106.”

Elijah Smith pupils hike up a hill, learn hand games from elder Roger Ellis and attempt two-foot kicks under the supervision of Eric Porter, an instructor with the Aboriginal Sports Circle. For some nations, camps like these offer a model for what their school systems will look like full-time.

Melanie Bennett is answering texts, signing a stack of documents and scrolling through a report – all with CCR playing in the background – when she looks out her office window in downtown Whitehorse and catches sight of the Grade 7 graduates from Whitehorse Elementary. They’re in caps and gowns, parading in front of the rest of the school’s students. “Aww, that’s such good modelling for kids,” says Ms. Bennett, executive director of the First Nation Education Directorate.

Ms. Bennett, who is Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, spent 15 years working within Yukon’s education system, much of it as a school principal. “I was constantly advocating for Indigenous students,” she says. “But I got tired of being treated like a confrontational Indian because I was advocating in a colonial system.”

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Ms. Bennett, who’s wearing a beaded moose-hide and black rabbit-fur barrette the size of a dessert plate, wrote her master’s thesis on the development of culturally inclusive education, travelling across Canada to see First Nation schools in action. “I fought for 15 years to have First Nation liaisons who would support teachers and kids, for cultural programming, and to have First Nation support workers for all Indigenous students,” Ms. Bennett says. It took the creation of the directorate to realize this dream. “We had our inherent right of education stripped from us,” she says. “The school board will reclaim that right.”

Back at Jack Hulland, just before the Grade 7 class leaves culture camp, the advocates ask one of the First Nation students to share traditional knowledge from his family’s fish camp. This student spends a lot of time by himself on the playground, Ms. Harper says. “I know his background. There are struggles there.”

The young man steps up to the table, picks up a knife and deftly cuts into an Arctic char, showing his classmates how his family processes fish. When he holds up that beautifully cut fillet ready for drying and smoking, his peers think it’s super-cool. “In that moment, sharing his Indigenous background, he was so prideful,” Ms. Harper says. “I feel like he’ll remember that for many years to come – if not forever.”

Ms. Jules, the Teslin Tlingit elder, shows F.H. Collins students the art of preparing fish.

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