At the end of June, Paul Gull will step down as Chairman of the Cree School Board ending 11 years of service. Initially Paul was persuaded by Waswanipi community members to run as a school commissioner in the early Eighties. At the time he remembers he was just two years out of high school himself.
This very fact made him invaluable as an information resource to older members of the board giving them an insight and update into what was really happening with the youth in schools. During the last 11 years Paul has been a part of and has seen a lot of changes and growth in the CSB.
When asked about whether students had problems today, he replied, “Well, more are graduating.” Paul also told The Nation his plans for the future include the possibility of going back to school himself. If he does he’ll be looking at the system he helped put in place as a “client” himself.
The Nation: I understand that you are coming to the end of your term as Chairman of the Cree School Board, Will you be running again? Paul Gull: No. I’ve decided not to run again.
How long have you been with the Cree School Board? This is my 11th year counting the times I’ve served as a commissioner for the CRA.
Eleven years of pain (laughter)…
What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in the CSB since your beginning and how did you begin? Well, I was about two years out of high school when I became a commissioner. In those days I was going to school in Val d’Or. Everybody was still in Val d’Or, Chibougamau, Hull, Timmins and in some cases still in La Tuque.
While I was back in Waswanipi somebody asked me to run for commissioner. To my surprise I won with a lot of votes. One of the first things that happened was that people wanted to know what was going on with the students. For example, people like Billy Diamond, who was the Chairman at the time, he would ask, “Is that what really happens in the high schools, Paul?” And I would say yes.
Things like… well, you probably remember some of the Chibougamau-Gwillim bar days. From there we tried to get them to understand the youth side—what kind of things the students needed so the CSB could develop programs to serve our students.
One of the major accomplishments was to bring the education home to our communities. That’s the biggest difference. We now have students attending Secondary Five and we have graduations every year in the schools in the Cree communities. We’ll be seeing some this year soon too. I’ll be attending graduations in and out of the Cree communities. I guess that’s the biggest difference for me—being involved in these changes.
We started to bring the education home in the form of our own schools. Even the main office was in Val d’Or and we wanted to relocate to the communities, which we did.
Bringing the education home had to involve a lot of curriculum problems though? Well, the old Nouveau Quebec school board before the CSB and Indian Affairs more or less just burnt everything so when they left we started from scratch. The teachers didn’t have anything to teach with when they started. This was before my time but as the CSB evolved so did curriculum development It was only in 1988 that the CSB adopted MEQ (Ministry of Education, Quebec) pedagogical guidelines.
In the last five years we’ve gotten many of the materials that our local communities require. Not everyone is aware the materials exist. This is a communications problem we are changing.
During the last negotiations we’ve shown the MEQ the materials we’ve developed. They were impressed with the Cree language and culture program, the material we’ve adopted for the geography program and history programs. We’re also working on the economics program right now.
In order to make the material culturally relevant changes we’ve made are to things like where the youth used to count chickens, they are now counting geese. It’s an extension of cultural values. The concepts are more relevant.
I know in the past there has been some criticism of the curriculum. For example, some people are saying you can’t use the “Whiteman’s tools” to teach Cree culture. What would you say about this? The way I look at it is I guess I have the “Whiteman’s tools” but I could never understand why a Cree child could know every part of an animal’s body in Cree but still can’t pass a biology exam. If only he had the confidence to realize that he knows it. Every kid can pass the biology exams and other subjects based on what the Elders know and have taught them.
Like everybody’s been telling us the youth are below standard. But in the south they’re only unilingual or bilingual and they only know the concepts of capitalistic society. Here we have students who know a little bit about capitalistic society but also Native life.
If they could get the confidence to put it all together and expose that to the other society they could almost tell the other society what is wrong with them. That’s how I look at it.
So you see Crees going outside of the territories to teach in the south itself? No, I’m thinking about the youth. I’m saying you’re not less than them because that’s the way they feel. I can’t do it because I’m not them because they have something better than me. That’s what I think.
Sometimes when I look back to my school days when I started writing about my culture in English, that was a time when I obtained some of the best marks I had. That was something I knew and the teacher didn’t know that I was writing, but I wrote it in the English language. The concepts were there and I used them.
So basically you feel the “Whiteman’s tools” can be adopted for Cree use”? Yeah. It’s more or less believing in yourself, what you know, and applying it Taking what you want and use in life and get going. I know students in university or college who do that. They take material from what they learnt back home, the knowledge they have in their head they use in the schools in the south. These youth actually had better marks than somebody who didn’t have that knowledges.
That’s what I’m trying to do. To have the youth look at them- selves with pride and self-esteem in what they are and what they know. ,
Look at the Great Whale fight. People said we didn’t have a chance, we didn’t have the tools or the knowledge to win this sort of fight We fought with the rights of the land and the knowledge of the land. We used that to teach the Americans, who felt they understood what we were telling. That’s how you can do things.
Are you happy with the amount of people going out to postsecondary? Yes. I can remember when it first started there was about 50 post-secondary students. Now in the last four years we have about 350-400 students each year.
Do you get more applications than that? I think it’s starting to stabilize. We get a little more than 400 every year.
So then you don’t have the resources to meet actual needs? No, I don’t think we’ve ever capped the program but we have some control measures. Like deadlines and the 10-year residency measure that’s in the Agreement The 10-year eligibility list doesn’t come from the CSB. This is the band’s responsibility to update. The Board itself has funded eligible students in eligible programs and will continue to do so.
Where do you see Cree education going? Is there a Cree university on the horizon? We have some funding to look at that area. The request for one was there at the Annual General Assembly. The Youth Council supports the idea. I don’t think we can to it at this time because we have to find out what it is they really need. It is our intention to conduct a feasibility study for a Cree CECEP and the CSB will be starting on this shortly. In fact I’ve personally discussed this matter with the past two Ministers of Education, who are open to the idea.
Have some the other problems you’ve seen in the past found solutions? For example, school work, attendance and loneliness? I believe the role of the parents is extremely important concerning the questions of attendance, loneliness and school work. We have been trying to support this role through communications and as part of our global education plan. These particular problems are not easily solved and it will be only through continued efforts and working with the parents that we will see positive change.
Do you have any programs that reflect cultural relevance? Maybe we can get into the calendars I guess. It’s always been a problem since the calendar wasn’t adjusted to the Goose Break. We’ve got a pilot project in Chisasibi where they finish in April and start in July.
When we first started on this, the biggest problem I had was people saying you can’t do that. I said the present calendar was based on the agriculture cycle where parents wanted their kids to help with the harvest. But this is a hunting society with a different kind of harvest that happens at a different time. I looked across the table and said, “Potatoes don’t grow here and we can adjust our calendar based on our needs.”
Parents are taking some homework for students with them and we’d like to see more of that. But traditionally with hunting they aren’t so much concerned about books. We’re looking at these things and approaching them in an innovative manner. The changing of the calendar is one that looks at things in a traditional light but is new.
What would you say are the better memories that you’ll be taking with you? One of the better memories is how I saw people work together for a common goal like getting the schools. I think I was a student when I first heard that we were going to get a school. All we had were those classrooms in houses.
When I came home one time they said, “Want to make a little money?” I was asked to pass around this petition and get people to sign it When I came back from college we still didn’t have a school. There was a petition that everyone signed. I asked, where is that petition? We got a resolution. People got involved. Claude Ryan was the Minister of Education at the time and we got him to visit the school. We got him walking around and said, imagine it 35 degrees below and you’re going from classroom to the gym and it’s at the other end of town.
He started talking to the students. We had learnt from other people who tried to get schools built that you have to do everything to make sure they don’t forget you. Some of the things we did to get their attention, for example, I spoke to the principal and the secretary, was to get every kid to write a letter to Claude Ryan. We sent him five letters every day. Two weeks later the secretary told me we were out of letters. I asked her if we photocopied them. She said, yeah, and I told her to send five photocopies every day.
He answered every student personally. Certain people had told me that he liked to hear from students. I think that’s why we got the school in Waswanipi early. People said we had to wait five years and we said, why couldn’t we have it now? We knew what Claude Ryan really cared about was the students. I asked the students what he had replied to them and they said he promised them a school.
I asked Abel Kitchen, the Chief at that time, what did (premier Robert) Bourassa say to you when he came here? He said Bourassa had said, if you ever need anything give me a call. I said, “Well isn’t it about time you called him?” With that we put a letter to Bourassa and something happened there. We tried to involve everyone from the community. You know the petitions, member’s resolutions, the youth, the Chief… everybody we could think of who could do something to put it together.
We did that for other schools too. The best one I remember was the extension to Waskaganish’s school… Instead of walking away we fought back. We decided to send children’s letters to various offices by fax. There were all these faxes. Sirrios had faxes, the premier, the board of education’s faxes for the extension in Waskaganish and of course our faxes.
Instead of a roadblock we had a faxblock. We had to find another one you know (laughter)… It was so effective at one point they asked us to stop blocking their fax so they could use it for their business. Students did the writing and they did it themselves helping to get an extension to their school. I think that one was exciting because the people did it themselves. I more or less tried to act like a coordinator bringing people together that had a common goal.
Would you say then that was something you tried to do, find the common goals of a Cree community and help to achieve them? I think over time the commissioners have recognized the CSB is an entity trying to serve the whole Cree Nation. In order to do that we have to work with all the communities, the local schools and the people. Was there another way of having him say yes! We have to sit down and discuss issues collectively. Some people had different ideas, you know. We must use everyone’s ideas as much as possible. I think that is the way to go. Even today, I mean, when I went into the communities a few years ago we were getting blasted. The CSB this, the CSB that, we can’t do this, we don’t do that There’s only so much the CSB can do but if we work together we can achieve it.
The communities, the people themselves who were blasting us. I tried to take it as positive criticism. Something I can build on. But there was some good stuff. It was the first time we saw some interest in the Cree communities. Some of them gave us that type of reception. Others were very nice, offering us gifts.
Some of those places I remember well. We did that for the first two years of the CSB. Sometimes I had to hold back the people in the CSB saying, we don’t have to respond now. We can take this constructively and try to get what they are saying. Try to get the right answer and share it with them after. We got ready for the next round and said instead of being blasted, let’s do something positive so they can respond to us.
For example, we gave awards to people who had been with the CSB more than 10 years. It was to give back something to the people in a positive manner. That also had an effect on the image of the Board.
The other thing we did was to invert the pyramid. I said, I’m no longer at the top. The people are the top and I’m down here. Let’s see what we can do with it because if we’re up here, we’re from the outside and people would say, “You’re going to do this.” You can’t win those types of arguments. The decision has to come from the community. The people have to have a sense of ownership. It can’t be the CSB’s school anymore. It’s got to be our school. It’s got to belong to them, the parents, the teachers and the students.
If it’s always going to be the CSB the people will not feel ownership and simply blame the CSB for the problems. If we are going to be able to change anything, the people (parents and students) must feel the school is theirs.
What about drop-outs and other controversial issues? Education is a lifelong process. There’s a tendency to put people down who dropped out. Those people can turn around and decide OK that wasn’t the way to go. I can do something now. They can do something later in life and they’ll probably do better. If you look at the post-secondary program today many people who are making it are people with family and parents with responsibilities. They’re the ones who are graduating more than the ones coming straight from high school. They feel this time they have to do it You know when I know a youth is going to drop out I tell them I can’t do anything but please make yourself useful in the community. Do something for your community even if it’s for your grandmother. It’s still a value you’re supposed to hold dear for a youth. Gradually after a few years you may decide what you want to be.
I respect people who go to the bush. There’s people who are stuck in the middle. They haven’t decided whether they want to go hunting or whatever. We have to make a choice somewhere along the road not because we have to but for the benefit of the individual and their kids. I think that’s the other philosophy—how is it going to benefit the student? How is it going to impact the student? We have tried to do that for the last few years.
We’ve tried to change the way we do things. Our negotiating team is 90-per-cent Cree, 70 per cent of our managers are Cree and it’s coming around. You have to be patient. It isn’t overnight but we are continuing changes at a good pace. We don’t want to rush into it and create chaos for the sake of creating chaos. I think people see some positive things happening in the school board.
I used to tell people I have to take this book and teach my kids. It just doesn’t work. It’s changing. I mean let’s take something that will make them want to learn. I mean if you take a geography book they used in Montreal, what does he know? Why don’t we start with the Cree Territory as the center and build on that The other controversial issue in the past was the use of the Cree as the language of instruction. There are some communities that are hesitating. They are still waiting because they don’t believe all the material is there. They are right in some cases but I believe every kid should master their own language first before beginning another one. I was really fortunate to be living in a Cree community during most of my elementary years which helped me there.
People have this tendency to believe we will only teach them a little bit of Cree here and there, and the kids can’t get into it. I really believe the language of instruction up to Grade Two helps prepare the kid for the future. It gives them a solid foundation for the future.
I have one final question… Besides fishing, what are your plans for the future? In terms of my future plans, I’m going to be fishing in Mistissini since I found a few of their secret spots (laughter)… I really enjoy the speckle fishing there.
But I want to go back to school. I left college intending to go back but a lot things happened and I had new responsibilities and a job. It’s always been a dream and my wife wanted to go back so I said,
I’ll wait for you then. She graduated from the Adult Education sector of the CSB while I was Chairman.
So that’s my future plans, to go back to school.
I would also like to take this opportunity to thank the employees of the Board, the commissioners who I worked with in the past, the people of Waswanipi for sticking with me all those years.
I especially want to thank my wife and my children for bearing those long nights when I wasn’t home when you needed me. I love you for you’re the reason for my existence.