Eeyou Istchee is a little smarter after nine women graduated from a thought-provoking and insightful three-year Cree Family Life Education course that helped them to grow as people and as educators of Cree youth.

Shirley Sandy, Daisy House, Bessie Tomatuk, Marlene Matoush, Brenda Sam, Margaret Pachanos, Margo Mianscum-Cooper, Shirley Cooper, and Philomene Mianscum all received their certificates in a posh ceremony January 22 at the Forestel Hotel in Val d’Or.

“It was very touching,” said recent grad Bessie Tomatuk.

The night started at 6 pm and the fun continued past 11. A nice meal of roast beef and veggies was served to the 90-plus friends and family in attendance.

“I learned family values, interpersonal relationships, how to work in groups and how to do programs in the community or school, among other things,” said Tomatuk.

Her topic for the fieldwork portion of her course was addiction. She presented it to the secondary four and five students in Eastmain over eight sessions. She also did extensive research on drugs and alcohol and brought an Elder to talk to the kids about drinking in the community.

It was a sobering experience, so to speak. Tomatuk checked into a drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre nine years ago.

“I didn’t feel ashamed,” she said. “I was really comfortable to share my story with them.”

Tomatuk learned many things during her course, which started in 2002 and was actually extended a year so everyone could graduate together.

“I find I’ve grown so much personally,” she said. “The relationship with my co-workers is different. I look at the needs of my family more than I used to before,” said the mother of five children.

At times, she admitted, it was difficult, but her focus has now turned towards getting her B.A.

“There were times I didn’t want to go because of my job and my kids, and my partner was the one who pushed me,” she said. “We really helped each other and encouraged each other a lot. Sometimes it was hard when we left our communities. We’d come together to talk about our difficulties.”

During the course of the evening, Cree School Board Chairman Gordon Blackned tipped his hat in a speech to the graduates. A special surprise was the addition of Annie Herodier, who graduated from the first CFLE course many years ago.

As a recently ordained Deacon, Herodier said Grace and gave the opening prayer.

Nancy Walker administered and taught some of the subjects in the course. She was ecstatic and could not contain her tears when reached by phone by the Nation.

“It’s based on training the people in the course to work on human relations, communications skills and working in groups,” she said. “And being in touch with leadership skills, planning programs and initiating workshops in the schools.

“It’s a very experiential course,” she continued. “They used a lot of their own experience. That’s why it was so emotional. It’s a very emotional course. We shared a tremendous amount of painful feelings. We talked about residential school and sexual abuse.”

Walker said that she learned many things and revealed others about herself. The tight-knit feeling of the group enabled her and the other women to open up.

She was happy to see the ladies graduate, but said that it’s hard to see them go.

“I was so excited and everybody was so moved,” she said. “I didn’t cry, but when I got home I felt so sad. I was sad to leave. We had such a close relationship.”