The development of a Dene-based education plan is underway for students across the Northwest Territories.
This week, the Dene Nation held its first education summit, in order to gather input for a draft document that will outline its vision and priorities for Indigenous education.
"There was a real push to look at the social issues facing our children — be it food security, be it mental health and wellness, be it addiction issues," said Jane Arychuk, a contractor for the Dene Nation.
"Another big push is for land-based education," she said, "that incorporates both traditional knowledge and values, but also incorporates the academic knowledge."
The summit was originally scheduled for March but had to be postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Dene Nation hosted virtual workshops, panel discussions, and presentations from July 27-30 instead.
Arychuk said about 120 people took part in the conference, either online or by phone.
She said participant input was collected through surveys, priority polls, and breakout sessions and will all be used to shape the nation's vision and priorities document.
"The auditor general's report and the second auditor general report have laid out the issues in our schools in the Northwest Territories," said Arychuk.
The report, released earlier this year, found in part that the territory's Department of Education, Culture and Employment is failing to meet its obligations to provide Indigenous language education and equitable access to programming across the territory.
There's gonna be lots of barriers, lots of hoops. You just need to keep pressing forward. - Melanie Bennett, keynote speaker
"We know graduation rates for Indigenous students are low [and] attendance is low for Indigenous students," said Arychuk.
She added that now is the perfect time to start talking about different ways to deliver education.
"Everything is changing around how we can deliver education … and although we were looking at it before the pandemic, the stars have aligned," she said.
"Land-based education provides the distance that you need, the space you need, to have a number of kids together and [to] be able to keep them distanced."
Listen to communities: Yukoner
Melanie Bennett, the executive director of the Yukon First Nations Education Directorate, was one of three keynote speakers invited to present at the summit.
Bennett told the story of how the directorate came to have its own regional education agreement.
"It's been a very challenging road moving towards self-government for all of our First Nations," she said. "There's gonna be lots of barriers, lots of hoops. You just need to keep pressing forward."
Bennett said one of its mandates is: "Our children. Our education. Our way."
"We work for the First Nations students in the territory," she said. "And we want to improve their outcomes. We want to improve their education experience and we want to see our children be successful."
She said her advice for improving education is to listen to the communities.
"The communities need to drive it from what they need and what they determine, as self-determining nations, what they want for their children," she said.
"Your leadership needs to push at the political political level, [you] need to get the right people in the room so that they're going to make things happen. And then trust your experts."
Bennett says she hopes the two territories will remain allies in their efforts to improve education for Indigenous students.
Arychuk said the next step is to compile all of the data collected through the summit into one document.
"Once it's done as a draft it will go back to the participants for them to have a look and make sure that we heard all the voices," she said.
Arychuk said the Dene Nation plans to have the draft completed by September. Once the education plan is reviewed by participants and leaders it will be officially released to the public.