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Education in the NWT isn’t working. What will help to fix it?

Minister Caroline Cochrane speaks at the opening of the Stanton Territorial Hospital in July 2019. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
Caroline Cochrane speaks at the opening of the Stanton Territorial Hospital in July 2019. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio

Last month, the NWT’s education minister – not for the first time – openly admitted education in the territory is “not OK.” What should the next government do about it?

In some of her last pre-election remarks, NWT education minister Caroline Cochrane acknowledged in plain terms that the territory’s education system is not fit for purpose.

“We need to work better. We are failing our children. Our graduation rates are low,” Cochrane said on August 13, responding to questions in the legislature from Sahtu MLA Daniel McNeely.

“Our early developmental index is coming in low,” said Cochrane. “It is not OK.”



Following that admission of a system in dire need, Cabin Radio set out to ask some of the territory’s education leaders how they assess the problems and what needs to improve.

Concerns about graduation rates, the early development index, and attendance are well-known.

Jacqueline McKinnon, a spokesperson for the Department of Education, Culture, and Employment, told Cabin Radio the department has been measuring, and attempting to respond to, those problems for years.

Since 2012, said McKinnon, the department has measured how young children develop in areas such as social competence, language, and cognitive development using a tool known as the Early Development Instrument.



The data from 2015-17 shows an increase in the “vulnerability rate,” McKinnon said. Vulnerable children are those who place below the 10th-percentile cut-off in any of five categories. The department says this mirrors a similar shift across Canada.

Academic achievement in the NWT is measured through the Alberta Achievement Test, or AAT.

The more the school reflects the culture, the more parents and kids will feel that they are respected and that this is their school. That’s the beginning of rebuilding the trust.PHILIPPE BRULOT, DEHCHO SUPERINTENDENT

“Despite the fact that we still need to appreciably improve, the 2018 AAT averages are among the highest we’ve had over the last decade,” McKinnon stated. Attendance has been “fairly consistent” when taken as an average, she added.

McKinnon said these challenges are different in smaller and more remote communities, where residents face housing and employment issues. Equally, children in those communities may come from families that place more emphasis on traditional lifestyles and spend more time on the land.

‘You don’t just walk away’

Fraser Oliver is the president of the NWT Teachers’ Association. Oliver says teachers are dealing with a high number of students in their classrooms across the NWT.

Within a class of 30, Oliver said, 20 may have individual education plans requiring adjustments from the teacher, while students may also have learning disabilities requiring attention and care.

Teacher burnout is a problem, Oliver said. The association cites an Ontario study showing about half of the province’s teachers had moved on to other professions within five years of beginning their first teaching post. No such data exists for the NWT.



“Last year, 18 percent of our teachers were brand new to the North,” Oliver said, adding much of the turnover happens in smaller communities.

That turnover, he said, impacts the extent to which students open up to teachers. “They don’t have that trust. There’s a coldness involved.”

While little can be done when an individual teacher decides to change their life situation, more support in areas like daycare and teachers’ housing would make a big difference, Oliver believes. He says both are inadequate in many smaller NWT communities.

In the past five to 10 years, the association reports a marked rise in mental health issues among students and students acting out violently. Oliver related an incident of a Grade 1 student stabbing a teacher with a pencil.

“You don’t just walk away from that and it leaves you right away. You take that home with you that night and that’s going to bother you for a while,” Oliver said.

“Here’s a little boy who acted up that way and lashed out to you. And yet, we want the best for him. How can we help him?

“Because we know he’s struggling. And how do we keep the other kids safe and how do we keep yourself safe?”

Education officials are phasing in new wellness and mental health supports for all of the NWT’s schools over the next few years, department spokesperson McKinnon told us. This will primarily take the form of “community youth and care counsellors” who can support children and youth, both in and out of school.



Reviewing the system

When Cochrane said the entire education system needed to be examined, she mentioned reviewing the Education Act – which first came into force in 1996.

That piece of legislation guides how teaching in the NWT is planned and carried out, and hands legal powers to District Education Authorities and Divisional Education Councils.

At community level, the authorities are elected boards that help to oversee how local schools operate on their community’s behalf.

At the regional level, the councils take one authority member from each community and are then responsible for governing and directing all schools in that region.

It goes beyond what traditional schooling has looked like in the past.ED LIPPERT, YK1 ASSISTANT SUPERINTENDENT

Philippe Brulot – superintendent of the Dehcho Divisional Education Council – told Cabin Radio a review is a necessary move, and one that takes courage to bring up given the work it involves.

Brulot wants a review to examine schools through the lens of the NWT economy, such as how to prepare students for the job market here. A review, he said, would also need to take into account the small size of some school districts – such as the Dehcho.

These smaller districts may lack the resources to, for example, set up a fully fledged trades program, he said.



“I would love to see an NWT-wide strategy on trades, making sure that all the children of the NWT have the same opportunities for trades,” said Brulot.

The education department’s 2013 education renewal framework would be a good basis to build on, Brulot feels. That renewal outlined nine territorial government commitments for education in the NWT, which included renewing the curriculum, new resources for teacher wellness, and working with Indigenous governments as they begin to assume jurisdiction of education.

Oliver, representing the teachers’ association, agreed a review of the system is needed. He wants that to be an independent review, not conducted by any of the players in the system, that talks to parents, Elders, and children, especially students who are facing challenges.

“Don’t just go ask the ones that have come from a good home,” he said. “They’ve got good support. They don’t go to bed hungry, they have a safe place to sleep. Let’s ask those students that are struggling to be successful at school.”

The kind of review envisaged by both Brulot and Oliver would be wide-ranging. They said it should include the territory’s health and finance departments alongside education. Metro Huculak, representing the YK1 school district in Yellowknife, added the Department of Justice to that list.

A new ministry?

While issues like mental health, housing, poverty, and addictions are not education-specific, the leaders we spoke to said all are becoming a larger part of teachers’ day-to-day work.

“We’re very good at delivering lessons and helping kids who are struggling with numeracy or literacy. And to adapt our lessons so that students can be more successful,” said Oliver. “But we’re not trained in the mental healthcare profession.” Oliver said.

This sentiment was echoed by Ed Lippert at YK1. “We have families who need support,” he said.



An educator in the NWT for 37 years, Oliver says he has known students who quit school to work because they were hungry, and others who confided that they were having trouble paying attention as they couldn’t sleep at home, where they felt unsafe due to addictions.

What schools are grappling with, Lippert and Huculak agree, feels very different from the past. They don’t believe many education professionals come equipped with the right training.

However, they say the territory’s education systems are trying to respond to these broader, societal issues.

A program at YK1’s Sir John Franklin High School for street-involved youth has graduated several students, Huculak said. Food, clothing, fitness programs, and sometimes a roof over their heads is provided. Huculak said the next step is an improved set of “wraparound services” for these students, planned in conjunction with NWT government departments.

“It goes beyond what traditional schooling has looked like in the past. And that’s why we look forward to a review,” Lippert said.

Taking absenteeism as an example, Brulot says everyone involved in the school system needs to work hard to rebuild trust. For many community members, said Brulot, the residential school system – which was operational until 1996 in the NWT – broke that trust.

“We really need to show our parents how much we care for the children, we really have to make sure that the schools are the centre of the community,” Brulot said. “The more the school reflects the culture, the more parents and kids will feel that they are respected and that this is their school. That’s the beginning of rebuilding the trust.”

At some point, we need to step back and say, ‘What is the issue? Where do we start?’




Supporting families and children could involve creating an entirely new ministry, Huculak said.

Following a 2010 Auditor General’s report into the NWT’s education system, Huculak recalled expressing the need for a “children’s services ministry” to work with families and coordinate the work of departments like health and justice. This is a model he says has worked in Alberta, where a ministry of the same name is mandated with leading child care and intervention, early childhood development, foster care and adoption, and improvement in living standards for children and youth.

Huculak thinks an NWT equivalent would help to support certain populations in schools and, crucially, support families, too.

A new report on education in the NWT from the Auditor General’s office is due out next year.

McKinnon, for the department, acknowledged the act “requires updating.” She told us education officials at the department have started discussions with education bodies across the NWT about how to proceed.

Education districts in the NWT. Auditor General of Canada map

“Despite some of the amendments we’ve made, like junior kindergarten, instructional time, and bullying/cyberbullying, the act does not purely reflect the realities and needs of the current education system in the North,” McKinnon wrote.

Examples of areas where the department thinks the legislation is currently lacking include the needs of Indigenous governments, self-governance, and drawing down legislation for education oversight.



Oliver said the roles of teachers, principals, and local school boards should also be re-examined within the act. Brulot said a review simply needs to make sure the NWT keeps pace with the way society is changing.

Lippert, the assistant superintendent at YK1, said Indigenous education and inclusive schooling need an update in the act, to reflect how priorities have changed in education and wider society over the past two decades.

Education and self-government

As the Sahtu region leads the way in progress toward self-government, Cochrane said the NWT government has an obligation to work with Indigenous governments as they take on more responsibility for educating their citizens.

“As we move toward self-government, [Indigenous governments] have even more and more of a role. They have the right to actually draw down education. I think we have an obligation within the GNWT to actually work with them and to actually provide the supports,” Cochrane said in August.

McNeely, the Sahtu MLA, spoke in the legislature to express concern about low student achievement. “Indigenous government leaders in the region are interested in working more closely with the department and other education bodies toward improving education achievement and outcomes,” he said.

Cochrane urged district education councils to work more closely with Indigenous governments, saying the Sahtu District Education Council has taken that step.

“I know that the Sahtu District Education Council has put out an offer to meet with them more, to engage them more in planning. I am watching it carefully, and I support that,” she said.

Brulot said the Dehcho First Nations are in the process of creating an education committee which will then work with his regional council.



In Yellowknife, Huculak said the school district operates schools in Ndilo and Dettah and collaborates with the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, for example through on-the-land programming and Elders in schools.

RJ Simpson. who is to be acclaimed to a second term as the MLA for Hay River North, homed in on partnerships with Indigenous governments in his election interview with Cabin Radio.

Saying the territory must do a better job of promoting education to parents so that more kids turn up, Simpson said: “We need to partner with communities and Indigenous governments in the promotion and the delivery of education.

“Every time education initiatives have been successful, it’s because there have been those partnerships in place.”

Minister Cochrane, now on the campaign trail seeking re-election in Range Lake, believes the next NWT government must focus on early childhood development to have a hope of getting the rest of its education system back on track.

“The first thing we need to do is we need to get our kids ready before they come to school, so focus on getting them to the door,” she told Cabin Radio, speaking in her personal capacity as a candidate.

“Prevention is key. Some things may fall off when you’re looking at prevention-focused but if we don’t do that, we’re always doing crisis intervention. And that’s not the answer. We’ve been doing that forever. Indigenous peoples can tell you that story from residential school.

“At some point, we need to step back and say, ‘What is the issue? Where do we start? How do we deal with that?’ Early intervention is the key in my belief.”



Wilfred McNeely Jr, former Grand Chief of the Sahtu Dene Council, is running against Daniel McNeely for the job of Sahtu MLA.

For McNeely Jr, education is one of the biggest issues in the Sahtu. A review is “long overdue,” he said.

“I’ve got three children that graduated and they didn’t graduate in the community of Good Hope,” McNeely Jr told Cabin Radio. “I had to send my children to education in Edmonton, at a private school, because I had strong beliefs that the education in Good Hope was too low.

“I was just of the view that, ‘OK, if my children are going to graduate with a certificate from a diploma from Good Hope, and they can’t even get into Aurora College, then something’s wrong.'”

Ollie Williams and Sarah Pruys contributed reporting.