The decision by parents at eight Yukon schools to create a First Nations school board is a ‘monumental shift’ in Indigenous relations in the territory and could lead to progress in other areas, health and education consultant says .
Tosh Southwick, the former associate vice president of Indigenous engagement and reconciliation at Yukon University, said the decision could set a precedent for changes in health, welfare and childhood and territorial justice.
“It’s a concrete example of reconciliation,” she said in an interview. “This is an example of people working together to shift power so that Indigenous peoples have a say in the education of children in their communities.
Southwick previously worked to ensure the educational needs of students from Indigenous communities in the territory were met at Yukon University and works as an education and health consultant for various First Nations bands.
Yukon parents vote on proposal to create a First Nations school board
Southwick said the referendum result is an example of “resetting” a relationship and working together on a solution instead of a stopgap measure.
“I don’t think the school board is the end of everything and be everything, I think it’s the start of something,” she said. “There are things that you feel in your gut that your whole body resonates with. It’s something my whole body resonates with.
Preliminary results from a referendum on Thursday indicate that parents from schools in Old Crow, Watson Lake, Beaver Creek, Haines Junction, Ross River and Whitehorse approved the creation of a First Nations school board. Parents of students at JV Clark School in Mayo voted against the move and Elections Yukon said it would continue to be supported by a school council.
Official results will be available on Monday.
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The push for a First Nations school board in the Yukon dates back to 1973 and supporters say it will provide a model of reconciliation, providing education from Indigenous and non-Indigenous perspectives.
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Melanie Bennett, executive director of the First Nations Education Branch, said she was overwhelmed with the support and participation.
“I’m just trying to breathe today and savor the moment,” she said Friday.
The Branch is an independent body created in 2020 to help First Nations take more control over their children’s education.
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Bennett, who is from Tr’ondek Hwech’in First Nation in Dawson City, said the vote is the culmination of decades of work by Indigenous leaders.
“It was a long journey,” she said in an interview.
Once elections for the new First Nations council are held in March, administrators will have the power to hire staff, review and modify school plans and request Indigenous language education programs.
Almost a quarter of Yukon students identified as Indigenous in 2019.
The territory’s auditor general said in a 2019 report that Indigenous children routinely lack educational support to help them succeed in school or graduate. The Yukon has also failed to adequately reflect First Nations culture and languages in the classroom, according to the report.
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Lauren Wallingham, whose daughter goes to a school where the parents approved the school board, said she felt a sense of “hope”.
“This is a first step that will lead to real change,” she said.
Wallingham, who is Indigenous, was part of a group calling on parents to participate in the referendum at Takhini Elementary School in Whitehorse.
Education Minister Jeanie McLean said in a statement that the vote was a big step forward on the road to reconciliation.
“The creation of a Yukon First Nations School Board will help improve educational outcomes for all students in the territory.
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