Reserve cuts apart junior kindergarten

Rene Squirrel is the co-ordinator and teacher at Aboriginal Head Start at Chief Sunrise Education Centre on the Hay River Reserve.

Rene Squirrel is the co-ordinator and teacher at Aboriginal Head Start at Chief Sunrise Education Centre on the Hay River Reserve.

The concept of junior kindergarten – which is back on the agenda of the GNWT – has been criticized on the Hay River Reserve as a threat to the Aboriginal Head Start program.

Rene Squirrel, the co-ordinator and teacher with Aboriginal Head Start at Chief Sunrise Education Centre, made that perfectly clear in an Aug. 12 address to K’atlodeeche First Nation’s (KFN) annual general assembly.

Squirrel said junior kindergarten is not needed on the Hay River Reserve and in other communities.

“Don’t put junior kindergarten in there because our program is successful, very successful,” she said, noting it offers youngsters cultural activities, like setting snares, snowshoeing and catching fish. “Are they going to get to do that in junior kindergarten? I doubt it.”

Junior kindergarten was only offered at the Chief Sunrise Education Centre for one year – the 2014-15 school year, the first time it was introduced in the NWT.

Squirrel said she feels the federal government, which provides most of the funding, and the GNWT are working together to try to do away with Aboriginal Head Start.

“If they want to implement junior kindergarten, maybe they should look at Aboriginal Head Start programs for all the communities across the NWT,” she said.

Squirrel pointed out that one recommendation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called upon the federal, provincial, territorial and aboriginal governments to develop culturally appropriate early childhood education programs for aboriginal families.

“That says it all right there,” she said. “Our program is successful, so let’s just carry on with the aboriginal programs.”

Aboriginal Head Start – which is a play-based program for three and four-year-olds – accepts children first from the Hay River Reserve, and, if there is room, would take non-aboriginal children, but the program is always full.

People should be aware of what Aboriginal Head Start is going through and what it’s up against, said Squirrel. “We need more Aboriginal Head Start programs across the NWT.”

She said the non-profit Aboriginal Head Start has federal funding until 2020.

“And after that, we don’t know,” she said.

In comments to the First Nation’s annual assembly, Chief Roy Fabian said he is “completely opposed” to junior kindergarten.

“Aboriginal Head Start is already teaching our kids their language and their culture,” he said. “So why do you need something else?”

Fabian said junior kindergarten is just the GNWT still trying to “colonize” aboriginal people.

The chief claimed the GNWT doesn’t want aboriginal children to learn about their culture, and wants to substitute English for aboriginal languages.

The GNWT is planning to launch junior kindergarten, which is for four-year-olds, in Yellowknife and other parts of the territory at the start of the 2017-2018 school year after scuttling plans two years ago in the face of criticism from school boards and MLAs over funding.

The decision follows a year-long review of the program.

Junior kindergarten began in small communities during the 2014-15 school year. It was originally to expand to regional centres, such as Hay River, the following year, then to Yellowknife this year.

– Paul Bickford with files from Shane Magee