Yukon First Nations representatives painted a bleak picture in the Legislative Assembly Wednesday of efforts to improve public education in the territory in the two-and-a-half years since a federal audit identified major shortcomings in the system.
Three members of the Yukon Chiefs Committee on Education — chair Dana Tizya-Tramm, chief of Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, and technicians Melanie Bennett and Daryn Leas — appeared as witnesses before the assembly's standing committee on public accounts to answer questions from Yukon politicians.
It was the first of two hearings updating the public on the Yukon government's progress in addressing recommendations contained in a 2019 report from the Auditor General of Canada on kindergarten to Grade 12 education in the territory.
The report found that the Education Department was failing to assess and address longstanding issues with the system, and was also failing to meet the needs of First Nations and rural students as well as students who require inclusive programming.
While the government accepted the report's recommendations for improvement, Bennett, who's also the executive director of the Yukon First Nation Education Directorate, said Wednesday that not enough has been done since.
"There has been little demonstrable action that impacts students directly," she told the standing committee.
Instead, Bennett said "there's been a large focus on further meetings, conversations and discussions about what the issues are, despite numerous reports that have stated long-standing issues experienced by students in the K to 12 system across the territory," she said.
"My gravest, and I believe our First Nations' gravest concern is, what we are seeing is patterns of what we had seen in our 2009 auditor general's report and we are at huge risk of nothing being implemented."
'There must be immediate action'
Gaps for Indigenous students, Bennett said, occur early, and aggregate data "clearly" shows more First Nations students who are 18 years or older in the school system compared to non-First Nations students.
First Nations students also have "considerably more" absences and will have missed an average of two-and-a-half-years' worth of school days by the time they reach Grade 12, are twice as likely to be on individualized education plans and perform more poorly in early skill assessments.
In 2019, Bennett continued, half of First Nations students in Grade 7 did not meet expectations for basic numeracy but received no academic intervention. As well, of 10 First Nations students entering kindergarten, three will go on to complete Grade 12 while only one is expected to receive post-secondary admission.
"There must be immediate action to support our kids, many of whom are further behind because of COVID… I am fearful of where our graduation rates will be in two more years," she said.
Bennett, Tizya-Tramm and Leas said there had been some positive change — the establishment of a Yukon First Nations school board, for example, and increased funding in some areas — but all three also listed a number of challenges they've encountered in trying to work with the education department.
The challenges included an overall lack of transparency, difficulty in getting the department to share raw data about student outcomes, being told about decisions afterwards instead of being involved in the process of making them.
The Chiefs Committee on Education has also been shut out of discussions about the Yukon's school growth planning policy and on the education department's "business plan," which Tizya-Tramm said informs the work of assistant deputy ministers but is not publicly shared.
The committee also didn't have a say on how a review of inclusive and special education would be carried out, nor was it involved in the department's creation of a definition for "maximum potential" in response to the review's recommendations.
Meaningful partnership needed, says chief
Both Tizya-Tramm and Leas, a lawyer who's done extensive work on First Nations issues, emphasized the need for a meaningful partnership between First Nations and the Yukon education department — something they said has yet to develop.
"We're not stakeholders — we're not a group you consult with to get our point of view and go away and come back and tell us what you're going to do," Leas said.
"We're not a group that you engage with to simply tell us your plans … We need to be part of that decision-making process. We can't be standing on the sidelines."
"It's difficult when there's not even a recognition that we do have a colonized system in Yukon and that we continue to perpetuate it," he added. "I'm not here to allocate blame or point fingers, but it's an issue we need to address together."
Tizya-Tramm said the wants of the Chiefs Committee on Education were "very simple" — an open, transparent approach to change, jointly-lead processes and communication that includes parents, communities and the public.
"We feel that the auditor general's report is clear and it's enough to incite the level of partnership across communities, First Nations [and] parents to pull our students out from a deficit," he said.
Bennett echoed Tizya-Tramm's call, saying the department needs to create immediate change for students and functional partnerships with Yukon First Nations.
She also called for a strength-based approach to addressing First Nations students's needs instead of one that only highlights their weaknesses, and for an accountability position or mechanism to hold the Education Department to its word.
"We don't want to be back at this in 2029," she said.
Officials with the Yukon Education Department, including Nicole Morgan, the deputy minister, will appear before the standing committee on public accounts next Wednesday to provide the territorial government's perspective on progress made since 2019.