For Melanie Bennett, it’s a “model of reconciliation” and it’s worth a leap of faith.

She has spent the past few months as one of the most public advocates of the “yes” vote in an ongoing referendum in several Yukon communities. The vote could cause the biggest shake-up to the territory’s education system in a generation.

The question: “Do you agree that this school be managed by the Yukon First Nations School Board?”

Eligible voters — not just parents — in eight school attendance areas (two in Whitehorse, the rest in rural communities) can vote this month. The voting period ends Thursday and the results are expected soon after.

“Currently, right now, we’ve tried very hard to take this circular lens of Indigenous peoples and fit it into this square peg called the colonial education system — and it didn’t work,” Bennett said.

“We’re trying to create a very inclusive model. It’s just driven by our Indigenous pedagogies and philosophies.”

Bennett, who is from the Tr’ondek Hwech’in First Nation in Dawson City and a former school administrator, now leads the Yukon First Nations Education Branch. It was created two years ago by a committee of Yukon First Nations chiefs and is funded by the federal government under Jordan’s Principle as well as the Yukon government. The leadership was created to push for greater Indigenous control over education, and the proposed new school board has been an important part of its goal.

The current system “hasn’t worked” for Aboriginal students, says Melanie Bennett, executive director of the Yukon First Nations Education Branch. (Erik Pinkerton Photography)

School boards are a fixture in many parts of the country, governed by elected administrators and responsible for running local schools. The Yukon currently has only one school board that oversees the territory’s two French-language schools in Whitehorse. All other Yukon schools are operated directly by the Department of Education, with local school boards contributing.

The referendum will determine whether it is time to do something new. If even one school community votes “yes,” the new council will be created and will take responsibility for that school – hiring staff, allocating resources, and shaping the program beginning next school year.

Once the council is in place, other schools may choose to join later.

“Get behind the wheel and start making the change”

School board advocates say there is little to lose by adopting a new system, and much to gain. Lately, they are using a 2019 report from the Auditor General of Canada to make their case.

This report painted a dismal picture of how the territory’s Department of Education was responding to the needs of indigenous and rural students. He said these students were less likely to complete high school and more likely to drop out, and the education department hadn’t done enough over the years to figure out why.

Part of the problem, according to the report, is that the Department of Education has not partnered with First Nations to develop effective programs.

Hearings in the Yukon Legislature this month suggest little has changed since that report.

According to Bennett, a new school board was seen by the Chiefs Committee on Education as a way for First Nations to “get behind the wheel and start making the change.”

Bennett says the chiefs opted for this approach because it would not require any legislative changes. The Yukon Education Act authorizes school boards, but only the French-speaking community has actually created one.

“It was a way to get through this and start working side by side with the government to say, ‘This is what it should look like,'” Bennett said.

“The Chiefs… wanted this collaborative process and moving forward.”

Yukon Education Minister Jeanie McLean speaks at a press conference in June, announcing a framework agreement to establish a First Nations school board. The agreement was signed by the territorial government and 10 of the 14 Yukon First Nations. (Vincent Bonnay/Radio Canada)

Darren McKee, executive director of the Saskatchewan School Boards Association, pays attention to what’s happening this week. He is originally from the O-Chi-Cha-Ko-Sipi First Nation in Manitoba and worked for many years with the Saskatchewan Department of Education.

He says the new Yukon council would be unique if it oversees education in several communities with different cultures and traditional languages. Eight Aboriginal languages ​​are spoken in the Yukon.

“I think, you know, across the country we’ll be watching the Yukon carefully,” he said.

He is a firm believer in school boards as a way to give communities more control over their future.

“I really believe that education is the most important social endeavor that we have, especially as Indigenous people. And so, you know, you want to get it right,” he said.

“The community becomes much more a part of the education system, rather than a separate entity. The school is not kind of just there and has sunk in.”

McKee also has tips.

“Make sure you resource the governance part effectively. A lot of times we don’t think it takes a lot to do this stuff.”

Upcoming “Growing Pains”

McKee expects there will be “growing pains” for a new board, and Melanie Bennett agrees. There will be mistakes along the way, she said.

“We have to understand that and we have to have the space and the respect to be able to do that,” Bennett said.

She’s also keen to manage expectations, which she says have become unrealistic for some. A new school board will not mean sudden and dramatic changes in the graduation rate of Aboriginal students.

The road is long and this month’s referendum is one more step on the way, she said.

The referendum vote ends Thursday and preliminary results are expected soon after. Yukon’s Chief Electoral Officer says there has been “increased interest” in some areas where voting is taking place. (Paul Tukker/CBC)

Proponents describe a school board that will prioritize things like on-the-job and experiential learning, more Indigenous language instruction and community elder involvement alongside the current curriculum. Community committees, set up by local First Nations and working with administrators, will help set priorities and guide the direction of their local school.

In other words, referendum voters are being asked to support a concept rather than a detailed education program. The leadership is also unknown – the five council trustees will be elected later, and initially only Yukoners whose ancestors spoke a Yukon Indigenous language will be able to run.

“We’re getting things done. We also have to leave enough room for directors to be elected, so they can design this,” Bennett said.

“That in itself is an aboriginal perspective, to say that we have to wait until all the players are at the table…and then define the way forward.”

Excitement and worries

Under Yukon law, residents of a school attendance zone can petition the Minister of Education to serve on a school board and force a referendum. The vote must take place within 90 days. School board proponents acknowledge that the window is tight and some people have complained of feeling rushed through the process.

Sarah Chisholm heard these complaints in her community of Haines Junction, where St. Elias Community School may be one of the first to join the new council. Chisholm is a mother of two young children who are not yet in school and she welcomes the new council.

“I think there’s a lot of excitement about this opportunity, for sure. And I see a lot of concern as well,” she said.

“I hear a lot of concern that this is a change that is going too fast, that there is not enough information.

Chisholm herself has enough information to know she likes the idea. His partner is an Old Crow Gwich’in and Chisholm says he grew up with a foot “in both worlds.”

Sarah Chisholm and Jeffrey Peter of Haines Junction, Yukon, with their two children. (Submitted by Sarah Chisholm)

“He has such a unique perspective which is really amazing. And if I can give that to my kids, I think if we can give that to all of our kids and our community, I think we’ll be in such a good place, ” she said.

Others in Haines Junction do not share Chisholm’s optimism. Some online discussions have focused on who can or cannot elect directors and how community committees will be created. Chisholm believes the debate revealed deep divisions in his community.

It didn’t help that most of the discussions were online, she said. The Omicron wave led to new restrictions on gatherings this month in the Yukon, so people relied on social media or Zoom meetings for information.

“I think people react more thoughtfully and emotionally and empathize more with the people around them when you’re physically in the room with them,” she said.

“And I think that’s a really important thing for tough conversations like this.”