Sandspit residents made it clear last week that they want to continue to elect their own school trustee, no matter how the school board is eventually restructured.
At a public meeting last Wednesday (May 5) at A.L. Mathers school, almost 20 people made the same point: because Sandspit is on a separate island from the other communities, making the local school incredibly important to the people who live there, the community needs its own trustee.
Most of the speakers said they are not opposed to increasing the number of Haida trustees on the board, as the Council of the Haida Nation and the two band councils have requested.
Dan Macneil presented consultant Inder Mehat and trustees Wayne Wilson and Shirley Hawse, who are overseeing the public consultation on the issue, with a petition signed by 65 Sandspit residents who want the community to keep its own trustee.
Some islanders have suggested Sandspit and Queen Charlotte could share a school board seat, in order to boost the number of Haida trustees without increasing the total number of trustees from its current seven. But Mr. Macneil and others were opposed to that idea.
“Queen Charlotte and Sandspit are uniquely different with different needs,” Mr. Macneil said. “We need to retain our own representation on the school board.”
Richard Sample, the former principal of A.L. Mathers, said when Graham Islanders come to Sandspit for a meeting, they routinely rush away to catch the earliest possible ferry, yet when Sandspit residents attend meetings away from home they are expected to catch the last Kwuna sailing at 10:30 pm.
“Now you’re talking about taking away our trustee,” he said. “You’d be completely isolating us, by pulling a trustee to Charlotte to represent both communities.”
Mr. Sample suggested that the board be increased to nine trustees, so the Haida communities could have more representatives without taking away seats from non-Haida communities. This could be done without increasing costs simply by reducing the remuneration paid to each trustee, or abolishing trustee remuneration altogether, he said.
Warren Foster said that he could see that a reorganization of the school board might be necessary, but it shouldn’t involve taking away Sandspit’s trustee.
“I don’t think a good resolution to any situation is by disrespecting another community,” he said. “I would like to see positives come out of this.”
Mr. Foster, the community’s Gwaii Trust director, suggested that if the school board made decisions by consensus, instead of by majority vote, communities wouldn’t need to be so concerned about exactly how many representatives each has. The Gwaii Trust, as many speakers noted throughout the week of consultations, has a 50/50 board of directors, makes decisions by consensus, and continues to operate successfully.
“Consensus takes longer to achieve, and takes a little more work, but it’s sure a lot stronger,” Mr. Foster said.
Bill Beldessi had some complaints about the consultation process, and the package of information about trustee variation distributed by the school district. He said the package did not provide enough information for people to completely understand the issue, and he wondered how much effect the consultation process would have in the end.
Much has changed for Haida students in recent years, Mr. Beldessi said – academic success continues to improve, there is a local education agreement in place between the band councils and the school board, and a Haida education council has been set up. He said he could not see how changing the board would improve education for the children, although he added that he had heard new information from Haida education director Vonnie Hutchingson that evening which he would think about.
Ms Hutchingson gave a brief history of Haida encounters with formal education since missionaries arrived on the islands in the late 1800s, through the residential school period, up to now.
“The goal of those experiences has been well documented: the assimilation of our people,” Ms Hutchingson said. In fact, the assimilation happened so fast that within one generation, people who had been sent away to school were no longer speaking Haida, leaving the language almost extinct.
Haida children were not allowed to attend provincial schools until the early 1950s, she said. But even when they did start attending public schools here on the islands, they saw no reflection of their culture or heritage there.
For many years, Haida people have been saying that they want education and want to participate in the economy of Canada, Ms Hutchingson said – but they also want their culture respected.
“If this culture, this language, dies here, there’s no renewal for us,” she said.
The islands are at a critical time right now, she said. The demographics are changing, with the Haida population growing and the non-Haida population shrinking. Resource industry jobs are disappearing, leaving Haida people more reliant on the land and resources of the islands.
“It’s a time when our culture and traditions are more important than ever before,” she said.
Realigning the school board will give Haida people more control over their children’s education, and will ensure their language and culture are reflected in the classroom, she said. It will help improve children’s success at school by strengthening the partnership between the home and the school community, and influencing the attitude the school system has towards children.
Gary Russ, a member of the Haida Education Council, said it doesn’t matter whether the Haida population is 5-percent or 50-percent of the islands population, the Haida community deserves half the seats on the school board, because this is their homeland.
Right now, the seats are distributed by community, a system that gives the Haida communities of Old Massett and Skidegate two seats out of seven. The reason there are only two Haida villages today is because many others were abandoned in the period between first contact with Europeans and the introduction of the Indian Act, which Mr. Russ called one of the most discriminatory pieces of legislation ever passed.
“I believe the town of Sandspit is built over an old Haida village site,” he added.
Mr. Russ said he was frustrated by the length of time it has taken the school board to deal with this issue, which was first brought up by the band councils in 1997.
“When somebody gets power, the last thing they want to do is give some to somebody else, even if they deserve it,” he said.
Evan Putterill, president of the student council at Queen Charlotte Secondary School, said students had been left out of the consultation process and asked for an extension so students could express their opinions.
Mr. Putterill told the Observer this week that the school board turned down his request to extend the May 5 deadline for submissions, but did tell him that there would be a chance for more input in a second stage of the process.
“I’m going to be talking to people about it,” he said. “I think they should take the extra step and go to schools and see if they have any input.”
Meanwhile, at the consultation Tuesday in Queen Charlotte (May 4), regional district director Carol Kulesha said the school board should stay the same, with each community having a trustee representing it. Alternatively, the board could be increased to nine members with two representatives from the islands at large, but this would be expensive, and not the preferred option in a time of fiscal restraint, said Ms Kulesha.
Marni Younger, chair of the Haida Gwaii Learning Circle Society, said children’s formative years are between birth and age five, and finding ways to support children and families would make more of a difference than political solutions. Adding to the administration of the district would only pull money away from schools and children, she said.
Leslie Johnson said that in principle she supported the idea of a 50/50 school board. Similar boards, like the Gwaii Trust, have a 50/50 model and work well.
“To have representation of the school board based on communities overlooks the inherent racism of the Indian Act that created two reservations,” Ms Johnson said. “I don’t think it’s fair that representation should be community to community because that doesn’t reflect the reality of the population.”
Ms Johnson described a model from the Yukon for islanders to consider when deciding how a new board might look: each board seat would have two members – one aboriginal and one non-aboriginal. The people sharing the seat must negotiate with each other before casting their one vote.
Elizabeth Condrotte read a brief statement suggesting that the board be composed of five members “elected from and responsible to the whole community of Haida Gwaii/Queen Charlotte.”
“This is not the time to continue the old patterns of community rivalry as we face a future of diminishing resources,” she continued. “We have before us an opportunity to come together in a spirit of collegiality and look for co-operative ways to share resources which will provide the best education for all our students.”
Duncan White, president of the Queen Charlotte District Teachers Association, spoke on his own behalf. “We want to get as close as possible to representation by population,” said Mr. White, but added that the communities do need a voice. He suggested moving to a weighted voting system, which would allow every community to have a trustee, but would give each trustee a number of votes based on the number of people they represent. For example, a small community might have one vote while a bigger one might have two.
Bruce Ives read a prepared speech, saying that it would be ludicrous to increase the number of trustees in the present climate of fiscal restraint. He expressed sympathy with Haida people’s desire to have more representation on the school board, but felt the best solution would be to open up electoral areas. He said he liked Ms Condrotte’s idea of having five trustees voted from the islands at large.
The final speaker was Richard Russ, who said, “today we have a problem in front of us.” He himself had fond memories of his time in the district schools, but had concerns for future students because of the quality and level of education and opportunity for students.
“Treating each other with respect and working together to reach consensus is the answer,” Mr. Russ said.