By Fran Yanor / Legislative Reporter

A Takla student learns how to peel bark from a tree in the Driftwood Valley guide outfitting program, which incorporates all the curriculum needed for high school graduation. The land-based learning program is being considered by SD57 for funding. /Photo courtesy Takla First Nation.

For some students of Takla First Nation, leaving their remote community of 250 people to attend Grade 10 in the big city is dangerous. Within a year-and-a-half of starting high school in Prince George, about 30 per cent of Takla teenagers will slip from the system.

“It probably takes close to nine months for them to get affiliation with a crowd with riskier behavior and get comfortable enough to start venturing out of their comfort zone,” said Tamatha French, Takla youth and elder liaison.

“They might come back to school the next year, but then maybe they don’t do so well because they’re skipping, they’re drinking, or doing drugs. And then, we probably lose them.”

That’s unacceptable, said Stephanie Higginson, president of the BC School Trustees Association. “I don’t know the details, but (30 per cent drop out) is unacceptable to me and should not still be happening. We know better.”

Earlier this month, the SD57 board supported the creation of two additional elected Indigenous trustee seats for the Lheidli T’enneh First Nation and McLeod Lake Indian Band after both nations requested representation on the school board.

Whether the Ministry of Education will allow elected trustees to represent strictly Indigenous wards, or permit SD57 to add two new seats to the board to do this is unclear. Altering the composition of the board will require changes to a ministerial order and any changes to trustee representation will have to follow B.C. school trustee election guidelines, according to an emailed response from the Ministry of Education on Nov. 13.

Indigenous students make up about 30 per cent of the Prince George school district, and have about a 53 per cent graduation rate, said Pam Spooner, School District No. 57 (Prince George) director of Indigenous education.

“Our grad rates are horrible.”

Improving overall outcomes for Indigenous students will require everyone to work together, said Stephanie Higginson, president of the BC School Trustees Association. “It’s not just going to be the Board of Education that’s going to get us over the line, but we have a huge responsibility in that journey.” / BC School Trustees Assoc. photo

Provincially, over the last two years, 69.4 per cent of Indigenous students graduated within 6 years of enrolling in Grade 8, whereas, in 2018/19, 89 per cent of all B.C residents graduated high school under the same criteria.

“If the District has a large dropout rate of Indigenous students after Grade 10, they need to find out why,” said Higginson. “We need to be honest and open about it in order to fix these problems and understand them.”

The SD57 board will be developing its five-year strategic plan in the new year, which will be a good time to bring all Indigenous stakeholders together to help the district better understand the concerns with First Nations and Indigenous students, Board Chair Trent Derrick said.

“That will allow us to review what worked, what didn’t work, and how we can improve on it,” said Derrick.

“We just want to be able to support our students and give them the tools they need for success,” said Jayde Duranleau, youth councillor for McLeod Lake Indian Band, located about 150 km north of Prince George.

McLeod Lake needs to collaborate with the district to make its voice heard and having a trustee seat is a step in that direction, Duranleau said.

“A number of provinces already have designated elected seats for Indigenous trustees in a mix of formulas,” said Laurie French, president of the Canadian School Board Association (CSBA) based in Nova Scotia. Although, there isn’t a lot of data yet, French is confident the consequences will be positive.

“This has amazing potential to improve the conditions for Indigenous students and improve learning for all students,” French said.

How Takla will fit into the evolving SD57 ‘formula’ is unknown. Their students attend a local community school from Kindergarten to Grade 9. After that, the nearest high schools are 200 to 350 kilometres away in Vanderhoof or Prince George. Sometimes a parent will move with the student to the city, but often, students must stay with extended relatives or families they don’t know.

To help the 27 students currently enrolled in the Prince George school system, Takla’s Tamatha French (no relation to Laurie) and others have set up after-school supports for students, including community-building gatherings, academic tutoring, and elder mentoring.

The nation is also negotiating a Local Education Agreement with the district and developing land-based programming for its students, including a three-year guide outfitting program that will meet all learning outcomes for a high school diploma.

“It’s a matter of thinking outside the box,” said Spooner, who oversees an array of programming and supports for Indigenous students. “Being creative and innovative with what they’re doing on the land and tying it to curriculum.”

A lot of students don’t see themselves in the standard curriculum, which sometimes lacks depth and doesn’t always present Indigenous people kindly, said Carrier Sekani Tribal Chief Mina Holmes, whose council represents seven nations in the northern interior.

“There’s racism in the material, but also in the system itself,” said Holmes, whose council supported the nations’ bids for trustee seats.

There needs to be even more Indigenous voices at all levels of decision-making, Holmes said.

“It has to be more inclusive, and it needs to be well thought out,” she said. “Our students, they are important, they matter.”

Fran Yanor / Local Journalism Initiative / [email protected]