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GUEST COMMENT: It's time for Dene-based education in the Northwest Territories

Going into the fall, the conversation sweeping across Canada isn't the usual 'I wish summer would last a little longer' or 'I can't wait for my children to go back to school'; but rather, 'Is it safe to send my children to school?'

Under the weight of Covid-19 it feels that for the first time in Canadian history, Canadians across the country are grappling with the same question that has plagued First Nations' since they were forced to participate in a school system designed to 'kill the Indian in the child': Is it safe to send my children to school?

National Chief of the Dene Nation Norman Yakeleya.
NNSL file photo

For generations, the Dene people have grappled with this question, while simultaneously dealing with its impacts and outcomes. Not so long ago, our children were ripped from our homes and forced into the day and residential school systems where they underwent unimaginable traumas. They were submerged into a system of "education" that ripped from them their core identity, community and way of life.

We were told to trust the system. We had no choice. As the residential and day school systems were abolished, they were replaced by the public education system. A system where children in remote communities are still forced to leave their homes in order to participate. A system of education, that despite continuous sacrifices from our people, continues to fail our children: According to the 2001 census, approximately 43 per cent of Aboriginal people between the ages of 20-24 have not graduated from high school. Our people continue to be left behind, begging the question: Is there a better way?

At the Dene Nation, we believe there is a better way. This July, we hosted the first ever virtual Dene Nation Education Summit. The summit brought together the Dene Nation chiefs, Indigenous leadership, First Nations education staff, Elders, Youth and Indigenous educators to set a common vision for Dene education and to identify our strategic priorities moving forward. Our goal was to look beyond the system we have been told to trust, beyond the system identified as the only way, to develop a vision that respects and honours our people, our lands and our histories.

We need to redefine education in a way that works for First Nation children; one that is curated to the environment in which they will grow up in. One that integrates land-based teachings, our languages and one that supports them in the unique challenges they will face.

As the Dene Nation identifies a common vision for our strategic priorities moving forward, one thing is absolutely clear: Our children's future is safest in our own hands. The only way we can ensure our children are not left behind in the current education system is to create systems of our own. In this regard, the development of Dene-based education in the North is both timely and necessary.

In the coming months, our Leadership will ratify the vision and strategies from the Summit – and then the work begins. 

Although the current system has failed us historically, our future is not defined by the systems we were forced into..

Our future will be defined by the systems we leave for the next seven generations and beyond.