Current Problems

Education (6-12)

‘Time for some action’: Review to look at systemic racism in Yukon education

March 27, 2024

First Nation Education Directorate, child and youth advocate team up to find things that ‘need to be changed’

A woman stands against a wooden wall. At her side hangs an art piece. She is dressed in black with and has a determined expression.
Melanie Bennett, executive director of the Yukon First Nation Education Directorate, said the new review will be ‘about the system itself. So the policies, the processes, and dare I say, some of the legislation.’ (Leslie Amminson/CBC)

First Peoples Law Report: CBC News – Melanie Bennett, executive director of the Yukon First Nation Education Directorate (YFNED), says there have been many reports and recommendations made over the years, about how the Yukon education system can better serve Indigenous children. 

She says those are all appreciated — but now it’s time for a deeper look at what exactly needs to change, and how.  

“It’s time for some action. We need to see some things that are being implemented,” she said.

That’s the rationale behind a new review now being launched by the YFNED in partnership with Yukon’s child and youth advocate, Annette King. It’s intended to put the spotlight on systemic racism and discrimination in education, as experienced by Indigenous students and other students of colour. 

Bennett says it’s not about racism among individual educators.

“It’s about the system itself. So the policies, the processes, and dare I say, some of the legislation — that those processes in place create a systemic barrier for our Indigenous children in the territory, and our children in school,” she said.

“So that’s really what it’s about … things that over time need to be changed.”

Earlier reports and research have highlighted how Indigenous students in Yukon are less likely to complete high school, and more likely to drop out, than non-Indigenous students.

2019 report from the Auditor General of Canada on kindergarten to Grade 12 education in the territory found that Yukon was failing to assess and address longstanding issues with the education system, and failing to meet the needs of First Nations and rural students as well as students who require inclusive programming. 

Three years after that report, representatives from the Yukon Chiefs Committee on Education — including Bennett — told the legislative assembly there had been “little demonstrable action” to address some of those long-standing issues. 

Speaking to CBC News this week, Bennett said the new review being launched is about looking at some of the root causes behind the poor statistics.

“Unless we can have that conversation, and acknowledge that this is happening in the system … we’re not going to be able to get to the root causes.”

Bennett said the First Nations Education Commission asked that the review be done, and YFNED recommended that it be done in collaboration with King’s office. That would help keep children and youth at the centre of things, she said.

A swing set is seen in the snowy school yard of an elementary school painted in two tones of blue.
Outside Jack Hulland Elementary School in Whitehorse. (Kiyoshi Maguire/CBC)

“They’re often the voice that’s not heard,” Bennett said.

King said it’s building on work that she’s been doing for years, advocating for young people and hearing their stories.

“Our office exists because of systemic failures for children and youth in the Yukon. And disproportionately we see those failures for Indigenous children,” King said.

“So this isn’t something new that we’re just starting.”

Not meant to ‘scare teachers’

Representatives from YFNED and King’s office will be travelling to communities in the coming months to hear stories and experiences of students and families. A survey will also be available online.

Bennett said the goal is to identify potential changes to the system and “start actioning them.”

As an example of the sort of thing that might be addressed, she cited some data on early childhood education.

“We’re seeing, at the end of each kindergarten year, 80 per cent of our Indigenous children are being identified as needing one or more interventions,” she said.

“It’s just statistically not possible. So you have to pick that apart, and figure out the why, and what is it. And so really maybe we need to be looking at the assessment process or how that’s delivered.”

King said the review is not meant to “scare teachers.” Rather, she hopes some of the tools or solutions identified can inspire educators.

“For the most part, the educators I’ve worked with want what’s best for young people, and are really struggling trying to get them there when they’re disengaged and you know, there’s not a right program for them, or they’re really far behind,” King said.

“Those are the things that we really want to shift. And I think our educators with a passion are the people that are gonna start shifting that — and we wanna get behind them and hold them up to do that.”

The review is expected to continue until December. After that, a report will be prepared and shared with the First Nations, and tabled in the legislature next spring.

With files from Elyn Jones