Empowering Youth: Land-Based Education at Deh Gah School

Lois Philipp

Hello everybody. I am from the Dehcho. I grew up in Fort Providence and I am now the principal at the school there that I once went to.

I have been very fortunate to work in a community that has embraced everything that we do in the school. We approach every year with a planning calendar, saying, “Okay, what is really important for our youth? What do we want them to do?” We start off at the Kindergarten level. Every kid in K-3 will spend four to six weeks out on the land at the beginning of the school year. We start our school year at the beginning of August with the intent that August and September are really nice times of the year and our kids need to be outside. They will then spend a week out on the land in the winter at our winter camps. Those are just day trips for the little ones and then they’ll spend two weeks out on the land in May at our spring camps.

By the time our kids graduate, they can spend up to 50 weeks in on-the-land programs. I believe it really grounds our kids in who they are and what’s really important.

Our elementary students, those students in Grades 4-6, will spend one week out on a boat trip. If you know anything about many Northern communities, families came in from out on the land, so we take our kids out on the river and show them where their families came from. There are eight or nine families that came in off the land into the community, and they are the families who make up Fort Providence. They do that once in Grade 4, once in Grade 5, and once in Grade 6. They will also spend a week out on the land in the winter down at Horn River, which is about 20 miles downriver, learning how to set traps, how to set a net, winter survival skills, etc. Then they’ll spend two weeks out on the land in May. By the time our kids graduate, they can spend up to 50 weeks in on-the-land programs. I believe it really grounds our kids in who they are and what’s really important.


Former Deh Gah School principal Lois Phillip provides an overview of her school’s extensive land-based educational programs, which run from Kindergarten to Grade 12. Photo Credit: Pat Kane


If I look at our kids right now, we have 23 that are enrolled in postsecondary outside of the community, of which I believe 21 of them are attending outside of the territory, so I think that speaks well to the connection that we try to give our kids, our young people, with knowing who they are and knowing where they come from and what’s important.

What’s really important to us is building partnerships. We’ve been able to build a relatively good partnership with schools from the Hay River Reserve, from Aklavik, and Fort McPherson. Right now we have kids from all four of those schools in Costa Rica on an experiential learning outdoor education trip taking part in a workshop called Agents of Change. It’s just one of four camps that kids who join the Keepers program get to do. They start off of with the winter camp, so three weeks ago we had kids up in Fort McPherson doing a winter camp. The second trip for the two-year program is they will then do a two-week canoe trip in June, followed by a trip to Costa Rica the following March, and then follow that with a forest ecology camp.

We really work with our teachers to make sure that they have the skills necessary to take the kids out on the land.

All of these trips we do on a budget of less than $40,000. It’s been a process over many, many years of being able to build up our inventory so that when we want to do a land-based trip, really the only cost that we incur are those in terms of hiring the manpower.

We really work with our teachers to make sure that they have the skills necessary to take the kids out on the land, whether they become canoe instructors, whether we get them certified in advanced wilderness first aid – whatever is out there that will build their skill set. I think it’s really important that we begin to support the educational institutions in our communities. I think schools are a natural venue to get our kids out on the land.

I know that our parents don’t want our kids to leave at 17 or 18. I think it’s young for our kids to transition from a small Northern community into a large postsecondary institution, so we look at it and say, “Okay, I think it’s really important that we offer as many opportunities as we can.” Every second or third year we work to bring kids up to Willow Lake, Edehzheh, for between four to six weeks with families. When they’re up there we don’t send anything other than the basics and then they’re required to hunt and fish for everything else. We find that after six weeks the kids and the families that come back into the community are much healthier. They have spent six weeks without sugar, they have spent six weeks without pop and chips. You can see the difference in terms of some of the health implications. The first time we did it we did a bunch of health testing. Adults on average lost in the six weeks about 20 pounds and the kids lost about 15 pounds. It was just because you’re out in the bush, you’re moving, you’re busy, you’re hauling your own water and you’re chopping your own wood, and you’re doing all of those things that are really, really necessary for survival up there. And we find that once they come back, they want to go back. They find communities extremely disruptive in terms of some of those social challenges we face. I think offering these kinds of opportunities in our schools begins to impact some of the social challenges in a positive way. Knock on wood, we’ve never had a suicide in the community. I know that we’ve had suicide attempts but we’ve never had a successful suicide, and I look at that and I say, “Okay, in many ways our kids are extremely grounded, but they face every challenge that I think every other Northern community faces.” Just being able to ground them, I think, really empowers them in many ways, and then when they do graduate and go off to post-secondary they take those experiences with them, knowing that there are times that it is going to be very stressful, but they do have the skills to do well.

So what we do is we look at our planning calendar and we sit down in about May, end of April or beginning of May, and say, “Okay, what’s really important? What are the days that we want to do things?” And we do it from K to 12 as well as for our staff. So this year coming up for our cultural orientation, we will boat from Fort Providence to Fort Simpson as staff for our regional orientation, and in that process it allows those staff members a way to really connect.

I think that every school in the NWT should work towards developing intensive land-based programming because it really does pay off in the end.

Our K-3 program is in our local language. It’s a start. I think that we need to really encourage more people in the community to converse with our young ones in the language so that about time they get to Grade 4 they have a fairly good working knowledge of the language. We just haven’t gotten over that one hurdle of saying, “Now you need to speak it continuously.” We are right now in the process of wrapping up a two-year University of Victoria language revitalization program diploma course. So when I get back after spring holidays, we will do an intensive three-week Dene Zhatie Immersion program for all high school students. For three weeks we will pull them out of English and math and sciences and they’ll only be working in the language.

Being from the community, I think, has given me a lot of latitude and freedom to try things; and if they don’t work we’re just going to go, “Oh well, we’ll try something different.” And it has been a wonderful journey. You see the kids when they come back from an on-the-land program, you see the kids come into the school, and they are so much lighter and so much more engaged.

So in terms of school, the youth and institutions, if we can see a greater collaboration, if we could see a greater voice from parents saying that this is what we need, this is what we want, and a greater understanding within our communities that education needs to be owned by the communities rather than the institutions – I think that every school in the NWT should work towards developing intensive land-based programming because it really does pay off in the end.

I see our kids and our youth and the things that they’re now pursuing, despite or in spite of all the challenges that face outside of the school. These are things that I think really empower communities. ◉


Lessons Learned from 11 Years of Walking in the Mountains
Each summer, the Canol Trail Youth Leadership Hike takes a group of young hikers from the Sahtu Settlement Area for a week in the mountains on the remote and rugged historic Canol Trail. A challenge for the mind and body, the youth are tasked with truly walking in the footsteps of their ancestors as they carry all their own gear while trekking the ancient trail. Long before WWII soldiers named it the Canol trail, Shita Got’ine (Dene people from the mountains) travelled this path through the mountains to the territory we now call the Yukon. Norman Yakeleya, the founder of the Canol Trail Leadership Hike, shared the lessons he learned from over a decade of walking in the mountains of the Sahtu.

Every journey starts with just one step.
Obstacles can be overcome.
Ask for help if you need it.
Listen to the Elders.
Have fun. Life is short.
Life is good in the bush.
Learn the old ways.
Rest when you can.
Take care of the land and it will take care of you.
When the going gets tough, keep on going.
Mother Nature is the boss.

Norman Yakeleya served with the Tulita Dene Band as a band councilor from 1987 to 1990 before being elected Chief. He was also the Chair of the Sahtu Tribal Council, and served as MLA for the Sahtu region. He is the founder of the Canol Trail Leadership Hike.


Lois Philipp was the Principal of Deh Gah School in Fort Providence, Northwest Territories. She developed an extensive land-based curriculum at the school, including students spending up to four weeks on the land.

1 https://keepersleadership.wordpress.com/
2 https://teaandbannock.com/2016/11/10/dehcho-dene-zhatie-indigenous-language-revitalization-program/

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