Whitehorse needs a downtown school, opposition says
The Yukon government came under fire this week from some parents and opposition parties over plans to close the city’s only downtown elementary school and replace it with a new facility elsewhere.
Opposition MLAs also passed a non-binding motion by the NDP’s Emily Tredger, urging the government to ensure that there is still an elementary school downtown.
The territorial government announced last June that it would close the existing Whitehorse Elementary School building and construct a new facility in the Takhini neighborhood. The government said the existing 73-year-old building needed refurbishment and that it would be cheaper to just build something new.
On Wednesday, a group of parents appeared at the legislature to show their support for Tredger’s motion. The MLA for the Whitehorse Center also produced dozens of letters from city residents saying they want a school downtown.
Brook Land-Murphy was among those who showed up at the Jim Smith building on Wednesday. Land-Murphy lives downtown and has two children who attend Whitehorse Elementary.
“We, like many other people, were caught unawares by the government’s announcement in June 2022 that they were closing… and moving the school to Takhini,” she told CBC News. “We chose to build our home downtown so we can walk everywhere.”
Last fall, Land-Murphy was behind a petition urging MLAs to urge the government to ensure there is a school in downtown Whitehorse. The petition also called for a consultation on the issue. She also wrote to the government this week, arguing for a future downtown school.
Land-Murphy believes leaving downtown without a school will result in families moving away and robbing the community of its vitality. She sees a school as crucial to ensuring the neighborhood retains its diverse character with residents of all ages.
“Good urban planning includes things like sidewalks that people can walk on, and it includes things like amenities, schools and libraries,” Land-Murphy said. “And downtown is currently the third largest neighborhood in Whitehorse. It is projected under the city [Official Community Plan] to grow into the second largest.”
Tredger’s motion passed with the unanimous support of the opposition MLAs and no votes from the minority Liberals.
The motion does not state that the government should scrap its plans to move Whitehorse Elementary School; Rather, she is urging the government to “ensure there continues to be an elementary school in downtown Whitehorse.”
“The motion that we brought was intentionally a bit vague on the specifics because we wanted to give the government as much flexibility as possible to make the decisions that they need to make,” Tredger said.
“But at the same time we really want a commitment that there will be an elementary school downtown.”
Whitehorse Elementary is a French immersion school, so many students are brought there by bus from other parts of the city. Tredger argues that the French immersion program is best relocated elsewhere while maintaining a public elementary school at its current downtown location.
“I think there are a lot of possible solutions,” Tredger said.
This week, the Yukon government announced it would begin a public consultation on replacing and renovating aging schools in Whitehorse. Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Prime Minister Ranj Pillai said a report on the feedback received would be released this summer.
“I think it’s important to note that no one on our side of the bank said there would be no elementary school in the future and in the core of downtown Whitehorse,” Pillai said.
The prime minister said the government wants to complete the consultation before making any decisions on the new city center school infrastructure.
“What we want to do is make sure we speak to the First Nations governments that are affected. We want to make sure we’re talking to the people downtown. We want to speak to the different school groups to understand what they want so we can make a joint decision,” he said.
Pillai said about 50 Whitehorse elementary school students live downtown. But he added that there are hundreds of kids who live downtown and go to school in Riverdale and Takhini.
Demographics will also be a factor.
“I want the city center to be much denser. I would like to work with the City of Whitehorse to support this. Their official community plan supports this,” Pillai said.
“And those are things that you absolutely have to consider when thinking about future infrastructure like elementary schools or other facilities.”
Exact dates for the construction of the school have not yet been set, says the minister
The opposition Yukon Party tried to show in the legislature this week that construction of the new school in Takhini has been delayed. The party cited the government’s five-year capital plan, which says the project “may be adjusted or postponed” to allow for further planning, design or stakeholder engagement. It also noted that in this year’s capital plan, funding for the replacement has been extended through fiscal 2027-28.
However, the capital plan also states that adjustments are made each year, that projects and their budgets change as they move from planning and design to construction.
Education Secretary Jeanie McLean says no timetable was ever set for the new school building.
“It’s too early in the planning to talk about the exact dates,” she said.
The Yukon Party also scrutinized the government regarding its consultations with stakeholders prior to announcing a new facility to be built on the Takhini Educational Land Reserve, which is adjacent to Takhini Elementary School and now houses softball fields.
Party chairman Currie Dixon said softball Yukon could lose three of its fields in the reserve. He said local residents would lose green spaces. He also said that building a school with 500 students in an area with an existing school would cause traffic problems.
“When you’re choosing a site for a new school, the largest elementary school in the Yukon, you should consult with people before you make the decision, not afterwards,” Dixon said.
McLean said her department works with a project advisory board. She pledged further engagement, including with Softball Yukon, local First Nations communities and the First Nations School Board, to determine the school’s exact location on the land reserve.
The Takhini site, McLean said, was chosen for its “central location,” access to green space for modern learning, and is large enough to accommodate French immersion students. She added that it has “always been known” that the softball fields are on an educational reserve.
“We know there will be a lot of work to mitigate some of the potential issues, and we stand ready to do that work with our community and all of our partners,” McLean said.