Five young Cree students were recognized for their hard work recently when they were named the inaugural recipients of Academic Excellence awards for the secondary sector.

The Cree Nation Achievement Awards Foundation (CNAAF) honoured the five bright academic stars at an honorary banquet August 7 in Wemindji for their work during the 2012 scholastic year. Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come, Deputy Grand Chief Rodney Mark and Cree School Board chairperson Kathleen Wootton presented the academic excellence awards to the promising students along with laptops and iPads.

Nominees for the award were sent in from each of the nine Cree communities and hard decisions were made to select the winners. Kayleigh Spencer from Mistissini was acknowledged for her active participation in school where she scored high marks in math and sciences.

[wzslider autoplay=”true” height=”460″]

“I felt like I had so much weight lifted off my shoulders for being recognized for all my hard work. I felt a huge motivation to start college this fall knowing that, in the end, all of my effort is paid off,” said Spencer.

Also active in sports, Spencer is an elite volleyball and award-winning basketball player. Spencer’s dream is to become the first Cree doctor in Mistissini.

“Before I went on the stage, I was very nervous. Every single bone in my body was shaking knowing that all these people would be watching me but as I stood in front of them, I felt pride,” Spencer said. “I felt honoured to be standing in front of leaders from all across the Cree Nation. It was an awesome feeling.”

Another talented athlete, Jasmine Namagoose from Eastmain, was honoured for her hard work. As an honours student, her positive attitude and work ethic is invaluable to her post-secondary education. Waswanipi resident Meagan Icebound-Ottereyes is in her final stretch of high school, but has already been recognized for her hard work with four Certificates of Achievement in a span of four months as well as an Incentive award from the Board of Compensation.

Kevin Lacroix from Oujé-Bougoumou and Joshua Gull Cooper from Waswanipi both received awards in the special needs category. Lacroix’s achievement is a testament to hard work and courage. Despite a lifetime of physical health ailments, he overcame many challenges in order to graduate and continue towards his goal of becoming a video-game developer. Already a recipient of awards this year for the Seven Grandfather Teachings and Respect, Most Improved, and Canoe Trip Leadership, Cooper adds Academic Excellence to his mantle.

Presenting the awards is part of the CNAAF’s goals of honouring the Crees of Eeyou Istchee from within the community. “It’s time to acknowledge our successes as a Nation and to acknowledge the people from the past, present and future,” said Dianne Ottereyes Reid, CNAAF advisor and president of Aanischaaukamikw. “I asked each of (the winners) how it felt to receive it because I wanted to hear their opinions,” Reid said. “They all said it made them feel proud and they were all very excited.”

Being the first year, the pool of nominees wasn’t large enough to accommodate a primary school section but with more awareness and the recognition of their peers the CNAAF wants to increase the selection pool. “The most important outcome is that the youth will have the desire and the will to continue their education,” Reid explained. “We want them to say, ‘I want to go higher’ or ‘I want to continue on into post-secondary’ with the motivation the award gives them.”

The CNAAF already awards people who have finished or are completing their bachelors, masters and doctorates. The organization also recognizes those Cree who serve as role models in leadership and community service, corporate community involvement, Cree culture and language, and women’s contributions. “It’s really about motivating members to go further in their studies beyond secondary,” Reid said.

Creating role models for future generations is a priority for the CNAAF. “By having an award, it creates motivation to work hard and pursue education to a higher level,” Spencer said. “However, in my opinion, seeing other people from the Cree Nation who have achieved post-secondary is just as motivating.”

In order to be considered for the award, a student must maintain a grade average of at least 80%. However, extracurricular activities such as sports, clubs and cultural-event participation along with how much improvement a student has made during the year, are also components of the judging process.

Future plans include raising the number of winners to six for the regular sector, three for special needs, and three for alternatives being awarded once every two years. Despite the small pool of nominees, Reid is hopeful about the next award ceremony. “It’s our first year, so for the next achievement awards gala which will take place on August 28, 2014, we need to inform people about the opportunities,” he said.

Also on the horizon for the CNAAF is a Lifetime Achievement Award, which will be given to its first recipient in the coming year. The new category is currently in its early phase but it will be an exciting new honour bestowed upon those who have spent a lifetime working for the betterment of their communities.

The toughest part of school is maintaining focus on the outcome, added Spencer. “Just don’t quit. There’s nothing else to it. When I say don’t quit, I don’t mean don’t quit going to class, I mean don’t quit trying, don’t quit listening to your teachers because they are there to guide you. Don’t quit giving your all in everything you do. Strive for success. If it’s in school or in anything else, make a habit of being the best you can be. High school is only the beginning.”