Work to overhaul the NWT’s Education Act will not now be finished until after the next territorial election, education minister RJ Simpson said this week.
The Education Act legislates how teaching is planned and carried out in the NWT, from junior kindergarten to Grade 12. It’s the backbone of an education system that has faced sustained criticism in recent years.
In 2019, Premier Caroline Cochrane – the territory’s education minister at the time – acknowledged the territory was “failing children and families.” A year later, a federal audit concluded the NWT’s education system is falling short “in every area inspected.”
Earlier this year, the NWT government asked residents for feedback as it began redesigning the act. On its website, the Department of Education, Culture, and Employment says it plans to “prepare and submit a legislative proposal” by the middle of 2022 – work that is “on track” according to the webpage in question.
However, Simpson said on Tuesday that the first round of feedback – including talks with Indigenous governments and education leaders – had led his department to conclude “that this process should not be rushed.”
Simpson told MLAs: “In order to create an education system that truly reflects, engages, and supports all our residents, we will need to take our time and work collaboratively, and we are committed to doing both.
“That means that the development of a truly modern Education Act will extend into the 20th Legislative Assembly.
“During this Legislative Assembly, we will pursue minor legislative changes to address many of the operational issues identified during public engagement, while also continuing the broader conversation.”
In practice, waiting until the next government is in place means it will be at least 2024 before legislation to modernize the act comes forward.
An election is scheduled for the fall of 2023. Ordinarily, newly elected MLAs would be expected to barely meet in the legislature before early 2024.
Briony Grabke, a spokesperson for the Department of Education, Culture, and Employment, said the decision to slow down the work was based on 40 meetings, 584 surveys, and eight written submissions.
By email, Grabke said a “consistent piece of feedback … was that more time is needed to discuss significant changes to the education system structure and governance as it exists today.”
Grabke said her department “intends to continue engagement with all partners over the coming years to ensure that a future education system and governance structure is one in which Indigenous governments and people across the NWT can see themselves reflected.”
She added: “This work has begun through the NWT Council of Leaders where the minister and Indigenous leaders have agreed to collaborate. It will continue into the life of the 20th Legislative Assembly, with further legislative change anticipated at a later date.”
A full report on the initial round of engagement is expected before the end of the calendar year according to the department’s website.
Some of the feedback sent to the territorial government is already public.
Hotıì ts’eeda, a research support centre hosted by the Tłı̨chǫ Government, in July published several recommendations in response to the territorial government’s discussion paper about plans to modernize the act.
Hotıì ts’eeda asked for a new Education Act to include a commitment to implementing the UN Declaration, a plan to work with Indigenous governments on establishing or reaffirming regional governing education bodies, and support for Indigenous governments in authorizing knowledge-holders to provide guidance on language and culture-based curriculum.