Updated: Apr 7, 2020
By Skyler Isaac
The poster is of painstaking design. The background is comprised of a light blue color, interspersed with blobs of white, characters and sketches. It’s like witnessing a discoloured whiteboard floating through the clouds. In the centre is a circular outline containing several illustrations designed and created by a score of Whitehorse youths.
Local artist Rhoda Merkel was the mastermind behind the project. According to her, it was set in motion when she received a phone call from Deputy Assistant Director of Education, Nicole Morgan.
“She was sitting on a beach on Marsh Lake,” Merkel says, “and she said that they wanted to put together this poster. Some people down in Delta, British Columbia had done something similar the year before when an education curriculum redesign needed to be introduced.”
And that’s the reason why this poster exists: “It’s a visual communication poster, a project with the Department of Education. It’s a visual representation of how we can implement a redesign of the educational system.”
“[We started] by doing evaluations of what teachers thought education in the Yukon could look like, through their experiences. When we were doing these evaluations, we found that seventy two percent of all teachers wanted more hands-on learning.
“And from the info from the teachers and the communities we went to, all of that information was thought of, so there’s been many forms of what we thought the poster could look like. We knew we wanted a Yukon feel that was a number one priority. We wanted to show that we wanted to maintain high standards. The whole idea of the poster is called: How To Live In The Yukon And Thrive In Life.”
Another key component in bringing this project to life was the involvement of Lancelot Burton, director of the Youth of Today Society, who was brought on as graphic designer. On his hiring, came a number of youths who are involved with the Society.
“We’re all giving thanks to the Yukon youth who are creating the illustrations,” Merkel continues, “Some of these came from Faro, Haines Junction, Mayo… The others came from the Youth of Today Society, thanks to Lance. It’s sort of empowering them, knowing their voice is a part of that.”
“Rhoda asked me to help her out with her project,” affirms Burton, “I’ve been working with the youth center for a long time, and I’ve been doing graphics for about thirty years now. I think she liked some of the stuff that I’ve done in the past, so she asked me to help fulfill her obligation to Education.”
But, according to Burton, his design contribution to the final product was surprisingly small. “I came up with the circle concept, and that’s about it,” he says.
Most of the hard work was done by the Yukon youth who were recruited for the project. “Getting the youth involved was a combination of both of our desires. Rhoda was having trouble getting kids involved, and she knew I worked with her son on the mural project. So, we took youth from the mural project and switched them out to do the poster project, as well.”
Ali Khoda and Ben Gribben are local artists whose work can be seen all over town as part of this summer’s mural project, served as a mentors to the younger artists while they worked on the poster.
“I helped the kids with drawing and even did a couple of drawings myself. Coloring…that was pretty much my role,” Ali said. “Sometimes, when [the kids] are instructed to draw something specific, they would choke. So you’ve got to help them get that spark, you’ve got to help inspire them.”
According to a press release provided by the Yukon Government, “The outer circle [of the poster] represents a clock, with Kindergarten to Grade 12 replacing the hours. The second most outer circle highlights the six core competencies that are a strong focus of the new curriculum.”
These competencies are: creative thinking, critical thinking, communication, positive, personal and cultural identity, personal awareness, personal responsibility, and social responsibility.
The next circle visually depicts in sketches, the learning and skills necessary for Yukon students to be successful in their scholastic endeavours. These include deeper learning, honour, strength, digital literacy, skills for the future, problem solving, and land-based learning, among others.
Finally, the words and images in the innermost circle represent the Department of Education’s commitment to working with Yukon First Nations to begin the integration of language and culture into the school system. The images also show that “Yukon First Nations’ values can be passed on to students [for them] to live and learn.”
This project coincides with a three-day conference, which occurred in Whitehorse from October 17th-19th. The event was a gathering of Yukon teachers who met to discuss what new changes would be made to the curriculum.
This included educators who supported including classes about Canadian residential schools in in the curriculum, so students could better understand the history and devastating impact they had on First Nations peoples.
Speaking to why this remains such an important issue in Yukon education, was an Elder’s panel, where a handful of residential school survivors shared their experiences.
“I went to the Whitehorse Baptist Mission School when I was five years old, a month after my father passed away,” begins Adeline Webber, “There were many good people who worked at that school, but the man who took over as principal was a tyrant, and [he] made life difficult for us. It was like we had no control; everything was in his control.
“While there, we were discouraged from using any of our traditional First Nations languages. To this day, I still don’t know my language; very little of it, at least.
“There was sexual abuse in these residential schools,” she continues, “which means we were always on guard. This made it difficult when I went to public school. You can’t sleep at night; you can’t go to school. So I had to drop out.”
Andy Nieman’s story is no less harrowing:
“I attended Lower Post Indian Residential School. I went through sexual, physical and emotional abuse. The things school did to me as a child disconnected me from my family and my friends back home. But, it also connected me to other people.”
“It separated me from who I really was. I remember coming back when I was fourteen years old. I had been there for three years. I remember seeing my friends [again], but I felt disconnected because I didn’t know how to really be myself. [In school] I was always told how to behave and what to do. And to come out of that environment… I couldn’t explain how I felt. So, I turned to alcohol, and the alcohol took that feeling away instantly… until the next day. I did not want to face the truth of what happened to me, of who I truly was. [Because] at that school I felt ashamed. I felt abandoned. I felt dirty.”
“We become institutionalized in our minds. [After residential school], the place I felt the most at home was in jail. I was comfortable there, I knew my place.”
And this pain and trauma isn’t just limited only to the generations forced into these institutions at a young age. That pain has been handed down throughout decades, and still affects the education system to this day.
Many survivors turned to drugs and alcohol in order to dull the pain and make the memories fade. In many cases, these habits were in turn picked up by their children, and then their grandchildren. Even today, First Nations youth fall victim to the trappings of drugs and alcohol at shockingly young ages, so much so that it severely interrupts their educations.
According to a study published by the Yukon Government, the 2015/2016 school year saw just 62% of First Nations youth graduate from high school. Far too many drop out on account of substance abuse issues, young parenthood and plain old laziness.
And that’s why residential schools were so disparaging to First Nations’ self-identity. Through excruciating manual labour, harsh punishments and all other forms of horrific abuse, these institutions stripped away every aspect of their attendant’s cultural and historical identity, forcing them to conform to their captor’s way of living.
This is what the new curriculum aims to amend. With so many courses rooted in traditional medicine and storytelling, it’s safe to say that the new curriculum is seeking to restore some traditional cultural knowledge to new generations of First Nations youth in order for them to regain knowledge that residential schools have stripped away from past generations.
Recovering the heritage of First Nations youth isn’t the only reason behind this change. Deputy Minister Morgan and the Department of Education expect that teaching traditional skills in schools will provide valuable life lessons to all students, regardless of ethnic background.
No matter which way you look at it, the incoming changes, with the implementation of more hands-on learning, encouragement and support, are sure to be a vast improvements over what came before. After all, if just a single poster can be so inspiring, just imagine what an entire curriculum will be like.