“Many heartbeats, one drum.” This is the Dene maxim Jane Arychuk uses to explain the importance of this week’s Dene Nation virtual education summit.
Indigenous leaders, educators, Elders, youth, and others will gather online for the inaugural summit, which begins on Monday and runs for four days. (It was originally planned for March but delayed by the pandemic.)
The summit’s ambition is to shape the future of Indigenous education in the NWT.
Workshops, panel discussions, and virtual presentations will centre Indigenous voices and perspectives, according to organizers, while participants will work together to form a collective vision for education in Denendeh.
This vision will be used to push for an education system that supports and honours Indigenous children.
A report earlier this year from the Auditor General of Canada found, among other concerns, that the NWT government was struggling to provide equitable education for students in smaller, more remote communities.
The same report found the Department of Education, Culture, and Employment was slow to improve Indigenous language and culture programming, with potentially long-lasting impacts.
Arychuk, a former president of Aurora College, has worked in northern education for more than 30 years and is helping to organize the summit.
She says changes need to be made, and Indigenous people need to be a part of that.
“A lot of our communities are 100-percent Indigenous students in the school,” she said.
“Their parents, their chiefs, their grandmothers – everyone wants to be a part of setting a new vision and priorities for how education goes forward and meets the needs in five, 10, 15 years for our kids.”
Arychuk says the eventual vision created at the summit could involve land-based education or more prominent inclusion of Indigenous languages, or it could mean sending kids to school on different days.
“It’s totally open,” Arychuk said, “but we really want to provide Indigenous children with the best education possible … meet their needs, challenge them, [and] allow them to be successful in whatever way is felt that’s needed.”
‘A position that’s not great’
Dr Crystal Fraser, a Gwichyà Gwich’in woman from Inuvik, will act as a moderator and facilitator at the summit.
Fraser, who received her PhD in History from the University of Alberta last year after writing a thesis paper on the history of residential schools in the Inuvik region, said education is close to her heart.
“My training in history has really allowed me to explore other topics, particularly ones that are important to northerners,” she said. “And so, I really like to view my training and my privilege as a way to give back to the North and in certain areas that they think [are] important.”
Fraser hopes the ultimate vision includes healthier, more socially conscious approaches to education that understand the constraints children feel if their basic needs aren’t being met.
“How is it that we can support and encourage and uplift children and their families?” Fraser asked. “Because we know that if children aren’t properly fed, if they don’t have proper housing – all of this other stuff – then they probably are starting off in a position that is not great when they’re in the classroom.
“My hope is we can talk through issues that might not at first seem related to education, but definitely are part of the bigger picture.”
Other speakers include Melanie Bennett, who will discuss Yukon’s journey toward a Regional Education Agreement, and Chief Tyrone McNeil of the Sto:lo Tribal Council, who will talk about how his First Nation in British Columbia took control of its education.
On the final day, Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya – who was unavailable for comment – and NWT education minister RJ Simpson will host an invite-only leadership review and debrief session.
“That’s going to be the day where the leadership can really come together, and hopefully we can [develop] some kind of vision that will unify us in going forward with education in the North,” Fraser said.
Fraser will take suggestions and comments from the summit and draft them into a final vision document, which will be reviewed by Dene leaders before publication. The aim is for the document to drive partnerships between the territory’s education officials and Indigenous governments.
“And then the work begins,” said Arychuk, “to make the change that people feel will support their children, their grandchildren, their great-grandchildren.”