Keeping promises: A call to NWT voters on educational reform
in the 19th NWT Legislative Assembly
Crystal Gail Fraser & Julia Christensen
During this time of year, campuses across Canada come alive as thousands of new and returning students migrate back to their respective institutions for postsecondary studies. These include young adults of all backgrounds from the Northwest Territories (NWT) who are eager to delve into the post-high school world, expand and broaden their opportunities, and make their communities proud. Many of these students have had to overcome significant hurdles to get to postsecondary programs in the first place – hurdles that continue to hold many Northern students back from even realizing the options, let alone their dreams. These challenges are caused by a range of issues, from the challenges in providing adequate educational facilities across a vast region with a small population, to the low numbers of Northern and Indigenous teachers in territorial classrooms, to the legacies of residential schooling that have broken trust between Northern families and the educational system. Combined, these issues contribute to substandard levels of education, high school graduation and postsecondary enrolment.
Over the past few years, calls for improvements to the educational system in the NWT, particularly where postsecondary opportunities are concerned, have been common. From Aurora College cutting the immensely important and popular Education and Social Work Programs¹ to the College’s Foundational Review, which called for the creation of a polytechnic institution, education has been central to both political and practical conversations in the North. In a recent discussion paper on the NWT knowledge economy , Dr. Stephanie Irlbacher-Fox illustrates the links between improvements in postsecondary education for NWT students and improvements in the Northern economy, arguing that education and training can be better harnessed as economic drivers across the territory. She suggests that an anchor knowledge institution like a polytechnic university that builds on the strengths of all communities, small and large, is integral to helping all NWT communities receive economic benefit from the knowledge economy.
Fortunately, candidates running in the 2019 NWT General Election have thus far been vocal about issues surrounding education, with resounding calls for educational reform in order to improve outcomes for NWT children, as well as efforts towards broadening the available postsecondary options for NWT graduates. As voters consider which candidates to support, we advocate for an approach to educational reform that would eliminate systemic inequities by addressing the interconnected social, political, and cultural factors that create barriers to quality, accessible education.
Calls for change are not at all new, and have been ongoing for decades. In recent years, the GNWT has repeated its commitment to educational reform, but concrete efforts continue to stall despite leaders from smaller communities who have called on the territorial government to address the poor quality of education their child and youth currently receive. Most recently, Caroline Cochrane, the current Minister for Education, Culture and Employment, admitted at a forum in April 2019 that major reform is needed for the NWT education system, but that change would have to wait until after the election.
Though frustrations with the NWT education system are felt across the territory, the outcomes of that system are uneven: a CBC News analysis revealed that in the 2016-17 school year, only eight percent of students enrolled in Grade 9 in small communities achieved acceptable standards in standardized math tests, whereas in regional centres like Yellowknife and Hay River, 41.2 percent of Grade 9 students were at an acceptable level. Moreover, in some NWT communities, Grade 12 is not available, in some cases requiring travel from home in order to complete high school. Some have equated this with ongoing colonial approaches to education that seek to remove Indigenous children from their families, communities, and homelands. The reasons for these inequities are many. While it is easy to compare the resources available for children attending schools outside the regional centres with those in communities like Inuvik, Hay River and Yellowknife, and blame a clear disparity in facilities, there are broader, structural issues that play significant roles. Principal among these is a persistent concentration of resources and services in the larger communities – communities that, while home to large numbers of Indigenous students, are already areas of concentrated wealth and opportunity.
In the smaller communities, where the vast majority of residents are Indigenous, the inaccessibility of quality education is felt the most. These inequities have stark consequences for who exactly is advancing on to postsecondary opportunities at Aurora College campuses or in the south, and which communities ultimately benefit from investments in the knowledge economy. Without attention to leveling the playing field, an NWT polytechnic university based in one of the larger NWT communities is poised to entrench some of these same divides between smaller communities and larger centres, with those students who are already most resourced and most serviced benefitting from the offerings that such an institution would make. At the same time, the foundational review of Aurora College provided no clear pathways towards an emphasis on Indigenous governance, pedagogy, or culturally safe programming at the new polytechnic institution, potentially further marginalizing many NWT students from the opportunities of an expanded postsecondary program in the territory.
In light of these inequities, we are troubled by the inertia around educational reform in the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC). In 2015, the TRC released Truth, Reconciling for the Future and 94 Calls to Action, recognizing that access to quality education that promotes Indigenous culture and community strengths is central to repairing the damage of residential school policy in generations to come. In response, the Government of the Northwest Territories (GNWT) swiftly tabled a document entitled “Meeting the Challenge of Reconciliation: The Government of the Northwest Territories response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action.” Here, the GNWT stated that the Calls to Action “should help shape public discourse about the steps required to achieve reconciliation with Aboriginal Canadians” and that while the calls to action were designed for national contexts, “these ideas are worthy of further exploration and discussion” in the NWT.
Specific to education, the GNWT committed “to working actively to close the education gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students, and [support] the objectives of the recommendations by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission under this theme.” Given the deep-seated and persistent problems around education in the territory, their commitment to making improvements to the system was encouraging. In the years since, however, the GNWT’s response and updates on progress in meeting their TRC commitments remains wanting. While some GNWT initiatives have paid attention to the preservation and revitalization of Indigenous languages and culture-based programming, the 2019 update on the GNWT’s response to the Calls to Action describes no concrete action taken to address inequities in Indigenous student access to quality education, the hiring of quality educators, and making postsecondary opportunities widely available. Other related and critically important issues include a need to address other inequities and social determinants of health, such as the chronic need for adequate housing, which can be a huge barrier to student success in school: in the North, chronic housing needs can impact personal security, access to study space, and the ability to get a proper sleep, and can also prevent some residents from remaining in their home communities.
Infrastructural inequities like chronic housing need do not affect just students living outside the regional centres, but also teachers and their longevity in communities. Poor teacher retention is an issue that persists in many of the smaller communities, where housing and a lack of access to services and supports make it difficult for teachers moving from elsewhere in the territory, or from the south, to make a home for themselves. Herein lies one of the fundamental issues impacting the quality of the NWT educational system: the lack of sustained desire to educate and support Northern and Indigenous teachers. As the leader of the NWT Teachers Association recently reflected, “the longevity of teachers in communities strengthens the communities themselves.” The decision to keep the Education program at Aurora College shuttered has a direct and negative impact not only on the territory’s ability to retain teachers in Northern communities, but on the range of perspectives, experiences and ways of knowing represented in the class.
The issue is not simply one of retention, either. CBC North recently spoke with high school students in Yellowknife, who urged candidates to consider, in the weeks ahead of the election, how they might address problems with the education system. In that report, students made reference to a dearth in the number of Indigenous and Northern teachers, decrying the lack of a personal connection to the themes most relevant to Northern students. While the GNWT presents Northern Studies 10 as an example of its culturally-appropriate curricula, and asserts that “all NWT teachers and principals are required to participate in an awareness in-service about the legacy of residential schools,” these efforts fail to recognize the significance of representation in the classroom. As well, there is no clear reporting in recent GNWT report cards assessing the contribution of cultural training to the system.
Yet even a high school diploma in hand does not guarantee postsecondary success. At a meeting in Deline in July, representatives from the Sahtu region met with education officials to talk about updating the Education Act and cited concerns about high rates of teacher turnover and students graduating without the reading, writing or comprehension skills required to succeed in postsecondary programs. In other words, earning a high school diploma isn’t enough to get into university for many students in the NWT’s small communities. The full range of upper-level courses – for example, biology, physics and chemistry – are not always taught in every grade at community schools. Many students also struggle to pass standardized tests in foundational subjects like language arts and math. In a 2018 CBC profile of Laney Beaulieu, an Indigenous student from Fort Resolution on track to become a geneticist at Western University, Beaulieu describes the need to upgrade her high school coursework online in order to reach the standards required for admittance into university. It is also difficult to fully discern the inequities in access experienced by Indigenous students in the NWT due to the GNWT’s failure to honour the TRC’s ninth Call to Action: to report on the educational and income attainments of Indigenous Peoples in the territory compared with those of non-Indigenous people.
This is not to say that educators or administrations have not taken any action; indeed, many Northern stakeholders in education continue to work hard to reform the system. For instance, new teachers with the Beaufort Delta Education Council recently travelled to a Gwich’in camp along the Mackenzie River where they received invaluable cultural training to begin their important work as educators in Gwich’in and Inuvialuit territory. At the postsecondary level, Bonita Nowell, Manager of the Northern Adult Basic Education Program at Aurora College initiated the College’s “Journey to Reconciliation.” In the Spring of 2018, dozens of Indigenous educators, academics, and government employees met twice, in Whitehorse and Fort Smith, to discuss how Aurora College can practice reconciliation on a territorial level at both its campuses and its community learning centres. Nowell spearheaded the report We Are All Connected: Aurora College’s Reconciliation Journey, which is available in libraries and electronically through individual request. The report outlines the various ways in which the College should reform its practices to better reflect Northern contexts and support Indigenous students, including forming an Indigenous Advisory Council, creating positions for Elders to be available in-residence, and developing mandatory Indigenous and/or Traditional Knowledge protocols.
The point should be made, however, that the important and crucial work of reconciliation ought not to be left to regional education councils or individual educators. Although great work is underway at that level, we deserve more accountability, transparency, and effort at the level of territorial government. It has been precisely 50 years since the territorial government assumed control over education in the Western Arctic and only 23 years since Inuvik’s Grollier Hall closed – one of the last Indian Residential Schools in the country. Now, more than ever, Northerners deserve first-class education and the various benefits attached to it.
As we move through the last remaining days before the next NWT General Election, voters need to consider what their candidates will do to address inequities and gaps in the educational system. Candidates elected to the Legislative Assembly must carry with them a sense of urgency around educational reform, and an understanding that while the simplest commitments are the easiest to honour, the most complex ones will have the longest, and widest reaching, impact. The GNWT has made headway in advancing culturally-relevant, culturally-safe programming and requiring cultural training by teachers. Student Financial Assistance made available to NWT students also significantly facilitates postsecondary education options, and certainly played a huge role in the development of our own academic careers. But we need MLAs in the Legislative Assembly who are willing to tackle the most difficult hurdles holding so many NWT students back, and it starts with working directly with communities as well as across GNWT departments to implement comprehensive strategies. We need MLAs who believe that quality, accessible education is not something that can be left to one department, but rather needs to engage departments and governments in a wide-reaching, collaborative effort to recognize the interconnections between education and housing, health, social supports, and self-determination.
If we, as Northerners, unite our efforts to achieve this vision, great changes will be in our future. We have the responsibility to elect the most qualified, forward-thinking, and creative candidates to advocate for our children and future generations.◉
Crystal Gail Fraser is Gwichyà Gwich’in and originally from Inuvik and Dachan Choo Gę̀hnjik. She recently completed her PhD in Canadian History at the University of Alberta. Crystal’s research examines the history of day and residential schooling in the Northwest Territories during the twentieth century.
Julia Christensen is a settler Canadian of Danish, Irish and English ancestry, born and raised on Chief Drygeese territory in Yellowknife. She is now a Canada Research Chair in Northern Governance and Public Policy at Memorial University.
1. These programs were suspended by then-Minister of Education, Culture and Employment, Alfred Moses, in 2017 citing low enrolment and completion. The programs remain shuttered despite enormous backlash and a recent independent review of the Social Work program that recommended it be expanded in a full bachelor of social work program. See https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/aurora-college-social-work-diploma-review-1.4857238.