The decision by parents at eight Yukon schools to create a First Nations school board is a “monumental change” in Indigenous relations in the territory and could lead to advancements in other areas, a 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 the health, child welfare and justice systems in the territory.
“This is a concrete example of reconciliation,” she said in an interview. “This is an example of people working together to make shifts in power so that Indigenous people have a say over the education of kids in their communities.”
Southwick previously worked to make sure the educational needs of students from the territory’s Indigenous communities were being met at Yukon University and works as an education and health consultant for various First Nations bands.
Southwick said the referendum result is an example of “resetting” a relationship and working together on a solution instead of a stop-gap measure.
“I don’t think the school board is the end all and be all, I think it’s the start of something,” she said. “There are things that you feel in your gut and your whole body resonates with. This is something my whole body resonates with.”
Preliminary results from a referendum on Thursday indicate parents at schools in Old Crow, Watson Lake, Beaver Creek, Haines Junction, Ross River and Whitehorse have approved the creation of a First Nations school board. Parents of students at J.V. Clark School in Mayo voted against the move and Elections Yukon said it will continue to be supported by a school council.
Official results will be available Monday.
The drive to create a First Nations school board in Yukon dates back to 1973 and supporters say it will offer a model of reconciliation, providing education from Indigenous and non-Indigenous points of view.
Melanie Bennett, the executive director of the First Nations Education Directorate, said she’s overwhelmed by the support and turnout.
“I’m just trying to breathe today and savour the moment,” she said on Friday.
The directorate is an independent body established in 2020 to help First Nations assume more control over their children’s education.
Bennett, who is from the Tr’ondek Hwech’in First Nation in Dawson City, said the vote is a culmination of decades of work by Indigenous leaders.
“It’s been a long journey,” she said in an interview.
Once elections for the new First Nations board are held in March, trustees will have the authority to hire staff, review and modify school plans, and request education programs in an Indigenous language.
Nearly a quarter of students in Yukon identified as Indigenous in 2019.
The territory’s auditor general said in a 2019 report that Indigenous children routinely lacked the educational supports to help them succeed in schools or graduate. Yukon also failed to adequately reflect First Nations culture and languages in the classroom, the report said.
Lauren Wallingham, whose daughter goes to a school where parents approved the school board, said she feels a sense of “hopefulness.”
“This is a first step that will lead to real change,” she said.
Wallingham, who is Indigenous, was part of a group that petitioned parents to take part in the referendum at Takhini Elementary School in Whitehorse.
Education Minister Jeanie McLean said in a statement the vote is a major step forward in advancing a path to reconciliation.
“The establishment of a Yukon First Nation School Board will contribute to and improve the educational outcomes for all students across the territory.”