When the season changes in Beaver Creek, Yukon, six First Nations students of all ages travel to cultural camps to learn how to hunt beaver and bear from an elder.
So when it came time to vote for the First Nations Historical School Board last week, it was a unanimous yes from those in the 111 community who voted.
“It’s really nice to have something like that,” David Frank Johnny Sr. told CBC News a few days after the vote. “The system that’s in place right now just doesn’t seem to be working for our people.”
The community school, Nelnah Bessie John School, is one of eight Yukon schools that will join the new First Nations School Board.
The school board wants to incorporate more hands-on, experiential learning, and Indigenous languages into its schools in addition to the BC curriculum currently in place.
In Beaver Creek, people like Johnny say it will just be a way to formalize the on-the-job education they already provide to their youngsters.
“It amplifies what we are already doing”
Johnny began running field camps on the traditional territory of White River First Nation in the 1980s.
At first he only took his own children and his wife to their camp in the bush, but over time he welcomed students from all over the territory.
Now he and his wife run a moose camp in the fall. In the spring, the students are back in the field for a muskrat camp. Between the two camps, Senior also takes time throughout the year to teach students about bears.
During a camp, Johnny teaches students the skills they need to survive on the land, such as how to skin animals, set up nets, and how to preserve jerky.
Several times after attending field camp, Johnny said most students didn’t want to return to the conventional classroom. They prefer to stay outside, even in sometimes sub-zero temperatures, to continue learning.
“They said, ‘can we stay a few more days?’ But you know how the school policies are, you have to follow the regulations,” he said.
“Our people are failing in [the territory’s] system because we know in our blood that we should be out there learning.”
Johnny has also set up a tent near the school where students can come and see how he skins the animals he hunts.
Heidi Warren, principal and teacher at Nelnah Bessie John School, supports the new school board because she wants to see Johnny’s Camps play a bigger role in how her students learn.
“[The school board] basically amplifies what we’re already doing,” Warren said. “Instead of, ‘oh yeah, we’re going to do this camp,’ complementing the program, this will be the program.”
“Things are so different here”
Warren said the new school board also gives places like Beaver Creek, which is about 450 kilometers from Whitehorse, the opportunity to become more involved in what their students are learning.
“We are literally physically far from Whitehorse,” she said. “Things are so different there that the people who voted know that and know it’s a good option for us.”
Johnny could see a system where kids spend half the day learning subjects like math, science, and social studies, and the other half on First Nations teachings.
The school board will form community committees with local First Nations and school trustees to guide each school’s priorities and direction.
Johnny said he would consider presenting his ideas to this committee when it is formed.
It will take time for the Nelnah Bessie John School to come “out of government control”, according to Johnny.
Once that’s done, he said he’s confident the school board will make significant, long-term positive change for the entire community.