March 6, 2022

New Yukon First Nations school board will ‘amplify’ on-the-land teachings in Beaver Creek | CBC News

When the season changes in Beaver Creek, Yukon, six First Nations students of all ages go to culture camps to learn how to hunt beavers and bears from an elder. 

So when it came time to vote on whether to join a brand new First Nations school board last week, it was a unanimous yes from those in the community of 111 who cast their ballots.  

“It’s really good to have something like that,” elder David Frank Johnny Sr. told CBC News a few days after the vote. “The system that is in place right now just doesn’t seem to work for our people.” 

The community’s school, Nelnah Bessie John School, is one of eight across the Yukon that opted to join the First Nations School Board. The new board will be overseen by the Yukon First Nations Education Directorate, an independent body established in 2020 to push for more Indigenous control over education. 

The directorate says the creation of the proposed school board represents “true reconciliation” because it lets Yukon First Nations finally share authority over education with the Yukon government, which currently oversees all the territory’s schools except for two francophone schools in Whitehorse. 

The school board wants to incorporate more on-the-land teachings, experiential learning and Indigenous languages in their schools in addition to the B.C. curriculum currently in place. 

In Beaver Creek, people like Johnny say it’ll just be a way to formalize the on-the-land teaching they already do for their young people. 

‘It’s amplifying what we’re already doing’

Johnny started running on-the-land camps on the traditional territory of the White River First Nation in the 1980s.

At first, he only took his own children and his wife out to their camp in the bush, but over time, he welcomed students from across the territory. 

Johnny, right, teaches a student how to defeather a duck at culture camp. (Submitted by Heidi Warren)

Now, he and his wife run a moose camp in the fall. Come spring, the students are back out on the land for a muskrat camp. Between the two camps, Senior also makes time throughout the year to teach students about bears. 

During a camp, Johnny teaches students skills they need to survive on the land, like how to skin animals, set nets, and how to preserve dry meat. 

Many times after attending an on-the-land camp, Johnny said most of the students don’t want to go back to the conventional classroom. They would rather stay out, even in sometimes subzero temperatures, to keep learning. 

“They said, ‘can we stay a few more days?’ But you know how school policies are, you gotta follow the regulations,” he said. 

Johnny’s wife, Ruth, centre, shows children at a culture camp how to clean and cut whitefish before hanging them up to dry. (Submitted by Heidi Warren)

“Our people fail in [the territory’s] system because we know in our blood that we should be out there, learning.” 

Johnny also set up a tent near the school where students can come by to watch how he skins the animals he’s hunted. 

Heidi Warren, the principal and a teacher at Nelnah Bessie John School, supports the new school board because she wants to see Johnny’s camps play a bigger role in how her students learn. 

“[The school board] is essentially amplifying what we’re already doing,” Warren said. “Instead of, ‘oh yeah we’re going to do this camp,’ as an add-on to the curriculum, this will be the curriculum.” 

‘Things are so different out here’ 

Warren said the new school board also gives places like Beaver Creek, which is about 450 kilometres from Whitehorse, an opportunity to get more involved with what their students learn. 

“We’re literally physically far away from Whitehorse,” she said. “Things are so different out there that people who voted know that and know this is a good option for us.” 

Heidi Warren is a principal and teacher at the Nelnah Bessie John School in Beaver Creek. She supported the vote for the school board so that Johnny’s camps could play more of a role in the education of the community’s children’s. (Submitted by Heidi Warren)

Johnny could see a system where children are spending half the day learning subjects like math, science and social studies, and the other on First Nations teachings. 

The school board will form community committees with local First Nations and school board trustees to steer each school’s priorities and direction. 

Johnny said he would consider bringing his ideas to that committee when it’s formed. 

It will take some time for the Nelnah Bessie John School to come out from “being under the thumb of the government,” according to Johnny.

Once it does, he said he’s confident the school board will make important long-term positive changes for the whole community.

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