Yukon Native Language Instructors:

The Struggle for Recognition


Women's EDUCATION des femmes. Volume 8, No. 1, June 1990. p. 15-18.


The history of the Native Language Programs in Yukon schools spans more than fifteen years. In that time there has been significant progress in the pioneering of a unique oral language curriculum and an accredited native Language instructor training program. The success of the school programs is due in part to the support they have received from the Yukon Government and the Council of Yukon Indians. Unfortunately, this support has not been extended to the women who work as instructors in these programs. For fifteen years they have struggled for pay, benefits, a pension plan and some job security, without significant results.

As early as 1973, a few native language courses existed in one or two classrooms.They were instructed by native elders and non-native volunteer teachers who were not paid for their work. There was no standard curriculum no instructional materials, and no instructor training available. Today there are twelve Native Language Programs in the rural schools of the Yukon and three in the city of Whitehorse, with a total enrolment of almost 800 students. Yet in the midst of all this improvement and growth, the status and pay of the native language instructors has changed very little.

In 1977 the Council for Yukon Indians and the Government of Yukon established the Yukon Native Language Project (Y.N.L.P.) jointly sponsored and funded by the two agencies. Under the direction of John Ritter, the focus of the project was to develop curriculum, instructor training, and support for the native language courses that were springing up as local programs in the schools. By the summer of 1980, the Y.N.L.P. had produced the curriculum guide, Teaching Yukon Native Languages, and the first native language instructors were taking periodic training to improve their knowledge of the basics of second-language teaching, and to learn how to use the curriculum guide.

Ninety-nine percent of the native language instructors at this time were women who were fluent speakers of the language they were teaching. They were mostly middle aged or older, with little or no formal education, but with a wealth of cultural knowledge accumulated in traditional Athapaskan life experiences. Many of them headed large extended families and many had young dependent relatives who relied on them for support. All of them were valuable cultural resource people in their communities, and they often had other jobs and responsibilities. Many of them had been with the Native Language Programs in their schools from the beginning, and had acquired years of classroom experience.

Although the Yukon Government had a policy of support for the Native Language Programs, the instructors for these programs were hired as casual temporary workers and paid by the hour, with no benefits, no pension, no pay increments, and no job security. Ironically, they were invariably the senior staff members in their schools, while the "turn over" for teaching staff and administrators in rural schools averaged every two years. The native language instructor, an integral part of her community, remained in her position year after year.

Many of these instructors, when they think of their early teaching days, do not remember being too concerned with the lack of pay and benefits. They were concerned with learning how to do those jobs. They were satisfied with the development of curriculum, the training courses offered in Whitehorse, and the regular development of new ideas and materials for their classrooms because their main concern was for the preservation of their language. Although the Y.N.L.F. encouraged the instructors to join the Yukon Teacher's Association, or form an association of their own, the instructors as a group chose not to do so.

But when some of the Elders who had founded the earliest programs began to retire with no accrued benefits, no pension and no official recognition of the contribution they had made, the instructors asked for information about associate membership in the Yukon Teacher's Association. They received a series of delayed, ambiguous responses.

In 1983, the Yukon Native Language Project had become a permanent institution--the Yukon Native Language Centre and it had a small staff of trained "master language teachers" and a three-year Certificate Program certified by Yukon College. All Yukon native language instructors were required to enroll in this three year program. The instructors received credit for their classroom work in a practicum component of the course. Like other kinds of on-the-job training, this had the advantage of providing skill development without disrupting the salary and family life of the employees.

The Certificate program was one of the few programs in Canada devoted exclusively to the training of skills of second-language instruction. By June 1989, over thirty native language instructors had graduated from the program. Part of the Certificate Program's success can be attributed to its unique approach to training people without removing them from their families and communities for long periods of time. And part of the success of the program comes from its unique approach to instruction. Y.N.L.C. staff employ the traditional Athapaskan method of instruction: demonstration and observation followed by practice. A typical training session includes a lot of action, and very little of the lecturing and note-taking which characterize a non-native approach to instruction. These unique features have attracted native language instructors from all areas of the north-Alaska, N.W.T., and northern B.C.-and has sparked interest from many other places in Canada, the U.S. and most recently, the U.S.S.R.

These regular training periods did more than provide the instructors with skills. They provided the opportunity to exchange thoughts and ideas with other instructors and before long, the group had developed a professional identity. They discussed common professional goals and how to achieve them. They discussed common problems and how to solve them. They relied on their professional peers for moral support and encouragement in their work, and their initial concern for the survival of their languages grew into a commitment to the maintenance and improvement of their language programs. Initially, many of the concerns of the native language instructors were resolved through the support system provided by the Y.N.L.C. But the issues surrounding the growth and development of Native Language Programs in the communities quickly became more complex and often it was the instructor herself who was called upon to provide information and leadership on issues affecting the programs. The professional duties of the native language instructor had extended beyond the school and into the community and sometimes, the issues brought the instructor into the political and economic arenas of the Territory.

Professional pride and confidence in their knowledge and abilities grew naturally with the development of their teaching skills and the extension of their responsibilities. And with that growth of professional pride, the instructors became increasingly impatient with the lack of response to their requests for a pay scale that would acknowledge their training and experience. and for appropriate benefits, pensions and job security.

The Yukon Government, whose policy of support for the language programs helped to accomplish so much, has been very slow to translate this policy into a salary grid that values the native language instructors for their training and experience. A proposal for such a grid has been on the table for longer than three years and still has not been implemented. The Council for Yukon Indians, whose political lobby has helped to achieve one of the most credible training programs for native language instructors in Canada, now seems intent on preventing the instructors from achieving permanent status as Yukon Government employees so they can receive benefits and a pension plan. While a few chiefs support the instructors' requests, other Chiefs fear that such benefits for the instructors would somehow erode their control over the programs.

In 1989, after repeated attempts by the Y.N.L.C. to get action on these issues, and after repeated requests for help from the Yukon Teachers' Association and the Public Service Alliance had failed, the Yukon native language instructors realized that they must speak with their own voice. They formed the Yukon Native Language Teachers' Association for the purpose of achieving a salary pay scale, benefits, pension plan and job security.

In the meantime, the training program is attracting young women and men--most of them high school graduates and genuinely interested in helping to preserve the link between native language and culture. Young people who are not fluent in the language can team up with an older fluent speaker in the classroom, learning the language while they learn to teach. The interest of these young people in the program will help to ensure the future of the programs and the survival of the language. Fair pay, benefits, pension and job security are important incentives for further encouraging young people to choose native language instruction as a career.

Although the development of a professional identity among native language instructors has taken some time to develop, their Association was born out of necessity and has been shaped by its purpose. And because its members are the same women who demonstrated their tenacity and determination by staying with the programs through the difficult developmental years, it is certain that they will accomplish their purpose.


C.I. Pettigrew has worked with the Yukon Native Language Centre for 10 years, developing the Yukon Native Language instructors Certificate Program. She and her husband are partners in an outfitting business and she is a freelance fiction writer.

posted 24 March 2003