Tahayghen, cultural teachings key for school trustee candidates

Saving Tahayghen Elementary and restoring Haida language were big topics last night for Haida Gwaii’s remaining candidates for school trustee.

In April, 17 years after the idea was first raised, the Haida Gwaii school board voted to start a process for closing Tahayghen and re-designing Gudangaay Tlaats’gaa Naay as a kindergarten to Grade 12 school.

At the time, trustees said that without some big surprise, Masset would have a single school by September 2020.

But judging by the north-area trustee forum in Masset last night, the fight for Tahayghen isn’t quite over.

“There’s always a middle way,” said Patrick Moores, a former superintendent for the Haida Gwaii and Nisga’a school districts.

Moores said he would like to see Tahayghen stay open in some form, and promised to find funding for it.

“We can do it, it’s not a problem,” he said, suggesting there may be funding through the First Nations Education Steering Committee and other sources.

Freda Davis, a grandparent who worked for 10 years as a First Nations resource worker in Haida Gwaii schools, said she hopes to hear more from parents on the issue.

“It’s not easy living in a small town, when you don’t get all the funding you do in the big cities,” she said.

Davis also re-floated the idea of closing the school district office in Queen Charlotte and relocating it inside Tahayghen. Last year the board found the office sale would go to the ministry, not the district, and relocating staff would be costly.

Besides trying to keep Tahayghen open, Moores and Davis agreed on another point — training up local people for school district jobs.

Davis said that was especially true for youth counsellors, adding that there are quite a few places willing to fund counselling services.

Moores said he enjoyed working with off-island ministry staff as a superintendent, but hiring local is key.

“They’re good people, they care,” he said. “But they don’t live here — they’re not us.”

At the same time that north-area candidates were talking Tahayghen, the three candidates for the south-area seat were laying out their platforms at GidGalang Kuuyas Naay.

Even before they spoke, it was clear all three are keen on school, and the arts.

Roeland Denooij has a bachelor’s in music education; Scott Marsden has a PhD in art education and is former director of the Haida Gwaii Museum; and Rhonda McIsaac has a master’s in multidisciplinary leadership and is a jingle dress dancer.

First up was Denooij, whose motto is “Education that is uniquely Haida Gwaii.”

“Living on unceded Haida territory, it is very important that we acknowledge the Haida language, and that the district works tirelessly to try and keep the Haida language from going to complete extinction,” he said, adding that schools should integrate Haida into regular, daily use and also further immersion programs.

Land-based, farm-to-school, and local mentoring programs are also part of how Denooij imagines Haida Gwaiian learning, as is acknowledging some hard truths on the way to reconciliation.

“We must acknowledge the hardships and the attempted genocide perpetrated by the residential school system,” he said.

“Obviously there’s a lot of stigma that then comes to our district, with that history.”

Scott Marsden was too ill to speak in person, but sent a letter that was read out loud.

“I believe our three museums on Haida Gwaii are under-utilized as educational resources,” Marsden wrote.

Marsden said years of museum work have given him lots of experience balancing tight budgets. Moreover, he said it’s made him believe in building effective teams for cross-cultural collaboration, co-operative models “in which everyone is valued and sees they are contributing.”

Rhonda-Lee McIsaac said she too wants to create a space for youth, educators and administrators that is strong in culture, language, and relationship-building.

“I believe that our youth have voices and experiences that we have to listen to,” McIsaac said.

Whoever voters elect to the school board for the north and south areas on Saturday, Oct. 20, Haida Gwaii already has three of its five trustees elected without a contest.

Wilson Brown is returning as the trustee for Old Massett, while Julia Breese is the central area trustee and Dana Moraes is the trustee for Skidegate.

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