Junior Kindergarten “colonizing” Aboriginal children

Photo courtesy of the GNWT's ECE website.

With the start of the school year underway, many families are preparing their children for the first day of school.

The biggest change about this school year is that the territory is expecting a younger crowd to fill the halls with the introduction of a full-day junior kindergarten.

Many issues arose with the pilot of this program.

The Education, Culture and Employment website states that part of the review took in to account a number of other programs and people while conducting this pilot.

Reanna Erasmus, former coordinator for the Head Start Program in N’dilo and member of the Western Arctic Aboriginal Head Start Council, had a very different opinion with the introduction of junior kindergarten.

Erasmus told CKLB that she feels the government doesn’t fully appreciate the program they offer, recalling the beginning of Head Start Program and what issues they had with the GNWT.

“At the very beginning when the program was announced the territorial government tried to get the funding to come to them,” said Erasmus. “So we fought for a year as the Dene people, we fought for a year against the money going to the territorial government. At that time the Inuvialuit people weren’t part of the projects. So, it took us a year but we won.”

Head Start is a community owned and operated program that has been in the NWT since 1997. They are funded by Public Health and focus on indigenous children who often come in with delays and prepare these children for entry into the school system. It is for children ages 3 to 5 and is offered in 8 communities.

Within the community-based program the strongest component is the language and culture. Erasmus said that community people know their values, traditions and languages. Head Start works hard to be able to pass them on to the three, four and five year old children that come through their doors.

A few years ago the government held a round table discussion on how to improve student attendance and achievements.

“One of the ideas that continued to come out at the time was that we would have a quality early childhood program, like Head Start,” said Erasmus.

“To us there’s a big difference on how teachers are trained and how early childhood educators are trained and it caused problems between, we feel, between the non-Dene communities and the Dene community people.”

Since then the Western Aboriginal Head Start Council has been lobbying against the introduction of junior kindergarten.


How is Junior Kindergarten such a threat to the Head Start Program? Why are there so many concerns about a program aimed to help early childhood education of Aboriginal and non-aboriginal children?

“We’re worried,” said Erasmus. “When… Jackson Lafferty was Minister for Education, I told him, do you want to be responsible for the death of aboriginal head start?” 

“Because this is the beginning of the end. We can see it.”

Erasmus has concerns that when the Health Minister sees the diminishing class sizes that they will pull the funding for the program, as the program already has small classes of about six children. If half of those children went to JK instead, how much longer would Aboriginal Head Start be a viable and worthwhile program? Especially in the small communities.

“What were afraid of is that Health Canada is going to come to us and say ‘well, you only have three kids. We’re cutting your budget in half’,” said Erasmus.

YK Centre MLA Julie Green heard these concerns and questioned Education Minister Alfred Moses during the spring sitting of the Legislative Assembly.

“It’s my understanding that Aboriginal Head Start came away from their meeting referred to by the minister, without feeling that they had been head, let alone accommodated,” said Green to Moses. “So I am going to go back to my question on what the government is going to do address the concerns about JK implementation that has been raise by Aboriginal Head Start?”

“It’s just simply the case that there are not enough children in the small communities to have both programs, so how will the government choose which one to continue funding?”

Education Minister Alfred Moses assured her that Head Start is safe, but Erasmus says there are also a number of other issues surrounding full-day JK.

“We don’t see money in the new budget for junior kindergarten, so how are some of the schools that have to have junior kindergarten, how are they going to have quality resources that enable those children to develop? There’s no new money,” said Erasmus. “Over the years, all of our programs have bought quality resources because we know from research that has been done that you need quality resources in order for the children to advance.”

Children learn from playing. They learn from hands-on experience. Teachers in AHS focus on scaffolding, a technique that involves instructional techniques used to move students progressively toward stronger understanding and greater independence in the learning process.

“We can’t see that happening if you’re in a junior kindergarten/kindergarten classroom with 25 kids,” said Erasmus. “The Aboriginal Head Start Program develops relationships. There’s a lot of one-on-one time that goes on and interactive play.”

Recommendations from the TRC Report state that the federal, provincial, territorial and aboriginal governments make culturally appropriate early childhood programs. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights Indigenous People also talks about the right that indigenous people be able to develop their own programs and run their own schools to ensure that language and culture is embedded in their programming.

“One of the things that was said in the Junior Kindergarten Report from parents is that this looks like residential school,” said Erasmus.

“This looks like we’re sending our four-year-olds now in to an institution that’s not really us. Aboriginal Head Start- when you walk into an Aboriginal Head Start you know you’re in a community program.”

Erasmus feels that there was no actual curriculum developed for the program and they are just reusing the kindergarten one.

“You can’t do that,” said Erasmus. “Five-year-old children are very different than four-year-old children.”

Junior kindergarten may be great in places like Yellowknife, whose population is made up from a number of people who come from throughout Canada, but is JK really the most appropriate solution for children in communities?

After the review of the pilot program in 2014 the GNWT was urged to go back to the drawing boards and talk to more people in the communities about what they want to see in an early childhood program.

Minister of Education, Alfred Moses, could not comment on what implications Head Start would face with their funding, but did say that the government is doing the best it can to address concerns about developmental delays in the communities.

“I can’t really speak to the funding portion for Aboriginal Head Start. That is a federally funded program,” said Moses. “We also provide support for Aboriginal Head Start. I believe in the amount of about $100,000 [annually] over the last few years.”

He went on to say that he can’t speak to their enrollment or what families will decide to do with their children.

“All we want to do is provide strong support for families for early childhood development,” said Moses.

“The investment is so beneficial that once we get those kinds of programs, quality programs, in place we will have children that will be ready to go into the school structure, the k-12 structure and that’s what we want. We want children to have all the opportunities to succeed.”

Moses said that the recommendation that came out of the review was to go out and consult with day care operators to ensure that they can all provide the same quality of programs.

“Honestly, I don’t think that it would affect anything. It’s optional,” said Moses. “So families will have an option of where they want to send their children. We just want to be there to provide support for families and for children in all our communities across the Northwest Territories.”

For communities that do have Head Start, the students will be given the opportunity to attend Head Start in the morning and JK in the afternoon, but for the large number of communities that don’t have the AHS Program it leaves little option.

During the First Nations Annual Assembly, Chief Roy Fabian of the K’atl’odeeche First Nations in Hay River said that he is completely opposed to the JK program. He believes that it just another way that the GNWT is trying to colonize aboriginal people, claiming that they don’t want children to learn about their culture and want to substitute English for aboriginal language.

“You know, I don’t understand why they’re doing that, because Aboriginal Head Start has been a very successful program throughout the Northwest Territories in many communities,” said Chief Fabian.

“What is the purpose of that junior kindergarten? I still don’t understand what the goal is. For me the goal of the Aboriginal Head Start is to give children their understanding of who they are, their culture.”

AHS has been very successful in Hay River and is a program that extends open spots to non-aboriginal children in the community as well. It focuses on enlightening children with traditional beliefs, knowledge and skills.

“It’s been proven in other parts of Canada, especially amongst the Mi’kmaq, that if you teach the children about their language and culture at an early age they will be successful later on,” said Chief Fabian. “The Mi’kmaq have a 95 per cent rate amongst their children completing high school.”

Chief Fabian has the same worries as Reanna Erasmus on the future of AHS.

“As a Dene person I really believe that the Aboriginal Head Start Program we got going on in the reserve where children learn about their culture, they learn how to drum, they do, you know, traditional things. That’s probably going to go a long way,” said Chief Fabian.

“To me the kindergarten/junior kindergarten is just more colonization.”

Chief Fabian has his own suggestions on what the GNWT could do that would work better throughout the communities, creating a stronger influence for education while maintaining cultural beliefs.

“I think it’s a waste of time and money. I think they would be better off to invest in to Aboriginal Head Start and give the children, all the children in the Northwest Territories, whatever culture they come from, strength in their traditional culture,” said Chief Fabian. “I don’t know how kindergarten is going to replace that. The Aboriginal Head Start is base in traditional beliefs, values, knowledge and skills. What is junior kindergarten going to be based on?”

The NWT JK/K curriculum is a play-based program that encourages children’s natural curiosity through inquiry, exploration, and hands-on experiences. It will focus on helping children develop their language, wellness and physical heath, creativity, problem-solving, and social skills. It is child-centered and builds from individual interests and strengths and promotes learning and development through play and inquiry, according to information provided by the GNWT.

Chief Fabian grew up on the land for the first nine years of his life and knows the value in traditional knowledge.

“Dene children need to be Dene children first,” said Chief Fabian.

“They need to develop their Dene beliefs, values, knowledge and skills. Once we set those beliefs, knowledge, values and skills in place, then later we can start introducing other things, and I think it works. It worked with people like me.”

Chief Fabian believes that because he spent so much time on the land, and then went to school, he has the ability to operate in both worlds.

“In spite of having been colonized, I still have my traditional beliefs, values, knowledge and skills that I returned to in order to strengthen myself,” said Chief Fabian. “I had to go back to my traditional beliefs… so I can do better. There was a lot of shame a guilt in the English education process, for me anyway, so I think it’s a good start for kids to go through Aboriginal Head Start.”

In an address to the K’atlodeeche First Nation at their AGM, Rene Squirrel, a teacher and coordinator with the Head Start program at the Chief Sunrise Education Centre, said that the JK program is lacking cultural activities like snare setting, snowshoeing and catching fish.

According to the Education Development Index 38 per cent of students in the NWT are vulnerable, meaning they are coming into the education program behind in their development. Majority of these vulnerable students are in smaller communities. Junior kindergarten is the territories answer to this issue.

Junior kindergarten began as a pilot in 2014 in the communities of Fort Providence, Norman Wells and Tsiigehtchic and was rejected in Aklavik, Paulatuk, Behchoko, Wekweeti, Whati and Gameti. Jean Marie River could not participate in the pilot because there were no eligible children enrolled at the time, highlighting the limited amount of children in smaller communities. From there expanded to Hay River, Inuvik and Fort Smith in 2015.

Yellowknife is beginning the program this year and it will be instituted permanently throughout the entire territory in the 2016-17 school year.

About the Author

Ashley Anthony
Ashley Anthony is the host of Denendeh Sunrise, CKLB's morning show that airs from 5:30 to 8:30 Monday to Friday. Ashley moved up from Ontario with her husband and two toddlers and loves basking in the beauty that is the NWT. Proud to now call Yellowknife her home, when she's not on air she is Momming, writing or taking in the land. Tune in to Denendeh Sunrise to hear more from Ashley and her crazy, non-stop life.

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