“Education doesn’t make you happy, nor does freedom. We don’t become happy just because we’re free, if we are, or because we’ve been educated, if we have. Education may be the means by which we realize we are happy. Education opens our eyes and our ears, it tells us where delights are lurking. It convinces us that there is only one freedom of any importance what-so-ever: that of the mind. And it gives us the assurance, the confidence, to walk the path our mind, our educated mind, offers.”

From the movie Iris, based on the life of writer/philosopher Iris Murdoch.

On June 22nd, 41 students from the nine Cree communities walked across the stage and received their baccalaureate of Social Work (BSW) in Val d’Or. It was the crowning result of seven years of dedication and hard work. These 41 students managed to not only complete their coursework for the program, but many of them did it while holding down a full time job and managing a family.

This one-time program was unique in Quebec and Canada, as it was developed in conjunction with the Université du Quebec D’Abitibi Temiscamingue (UQAT). What originally started out as a certificate program for some of the workers at the CLSC became a fully accredited Bachelor of Social Work program in which Cree-oriented courses were offered in the Cree communities.

Social Work is both the art and the science of providing services designed to assist people individually and in relationship to their environment. Social workers work directly with those who are homeless, unemployed, have physical or mental disabilities, are from broken families, who are victims of violence or offenders; all regardless of age. It is a profession committed to the improvement of the quality of life for individuals, families, communities and society.

But while there are Native Social Work programs available elsewhere in Canada, this was the only one in Quebec to address the specific needs of a Native population. And after the these 41 grads, there are no more plans to implement a curriculum that takes the cultural and traditional aspects of a Native population into account.

The UQAT BSW program came about thanks in some part to the signing of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA) in 1975. This allowed the Cree to create the Cree Board of Health and Social Services (CBHSS) and allowed them to take control over the social services within the communities.

While there have always been “natural helpers” living in the communities to respond to the social service needs of the children, they relied mainly on the time-tested modes of discipline and caring. It became apparent however, that the helpers were not trained for the kind of work that was a result of the fallout from the years of abuse in the residential schools and the erosion of the traditional way of life. The children required more than discipline; it was understood that they required psychosocial care.

In 1994 young people in crisis were referred to the Centre D’orientation L’etape in Val d’Or. There were no reception centres in the Cree communities that could offer the services that were needed. The CBHSS was working on transferring rehabilitation services to Mistissini with the intent of establishing a Reception Centre there. However, the Minister of Health and Social Services of Quebec (MSSSQ) at the time still had jurisdiction over the Cree Board, and required all the workers to follow a training program in order to proceed with the takeover of the services.

So they called upon UQAT to develop a curriculum in psychoeducation – towards a certificate for the Cree Nation. They chose UQAT because it would allow them to develop a Cree-oriented curriculum that would let the students remain at their jobs while completing the requirements for the degree.

In 1995 an advisory committee was set up comprised of different stakeholders from both UQAT and the CBHSS. The mandate for the curriculum was to meet the needs in both psycho-education and social work. This was to allow the students to acquire the skills to cope with the hardships related to psychosocial intervention in small communities. The workers experience additional stress due to the fact that they often have to intervene with people from their own social or family network. The curriculum also had to meet the requirements of the MSSSQ in order to proceed with the opening of the Reception Centre.

What resulted was recognition of the need for a Bachelors degree in psychosocial intervention by accumulation of certificates: in psycho-education, social work and specific psychosocial issues in the Cree communities. In the end, a simple reorganization of the UQAT baccalaureate already offered would meet their objectives.

A support team was set up consisting of Caroline Oblin, Bella Petawabano and Gale Cyr, who helped in the development of the course content and the cultural transer of learning objectives for each course. The general objectives of the UQAT social work degree remained the same, but the learning contents and methods were adapted to an Aboriginal perspective of decolonisation. The teaching methods were consistent with Aboriginal customs. The courses promoted interactivity within discussion, healing circles, sweat lodges and other ceremonies. The students became teachers and vice versa.

It was aimed at “learning to listen and listening to learn,” says Gale Cyr, the head of the program. She says the program was based in large extent on Aboriginal holistic thinking whereby all things are related according to the four directions: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. The students had to complete extensive self-analysis by examining their values, stereotypes, prejudices and the effects of colonization in their communities that affect them.

The program worked in a decentralized manner, whereby courses were held four times a year in the Cree communities. For 12 days the students would converge in the specified community and attend school seven hours a day. During this time they would complete the intensified coursework and do the required assignments. The students also went to Val d’Or and Rouyn Noranda for courses and to use the library. In total, it took the students seven years to complete the program. It was a long haul with many personal sacrifices and much determination and patience, not only on the part of the students but also the families.

The students were organized though, and kept busy during their off-study time while they were away. They were encouraged and funded by UQAT to establish a Student’s’ Council. Meetings were held on a regular basis where the students could express their concerns and needs, which were then shared with the CHBSS and UQAT. Social activities were held as well, consisting of volleyball, basketball games, snowmobiling, lots of feasts and other cultural activities.

Student Council President Edith Gull of Waswanipi was working at the local CHBSS when the program started up. “I felt I needed to learn more and add more knowledge for my work, expand my learning,” she said. “I couldn’t see myself going out of the community to do the BSW. It was a good experience to do it this way. I went to Montreal and Ottawa years ago to do my schooling but there was a big culture clash for me. I prefer to stay in the community. We got to learn about other nations through the teachers that came in and learn other information in general. Now I’m interested in justice, so I may apply with the CRA, try to work on Section 18.”

Michael Longchap of Mistissini was working at the CHBSS when the program was offered to him and he decided to try it. This despite that two years previously he had dropped out of Secondary II. “I was really lucky,” he’s quick to add. “The most difficult part was leaving my family behind to do the classes. It’s only two weeks but it was very hard. The best part of it all was when we were in school in the bush. We stayed in teepees and got to eat traditional food, traditional cooking; it was great…As for now. I’ve just been offered a permanent job, so I’m looking forward to that. If there’s another course, like a Master’s Degree, I’ll do that.”

Bella Hester of Waskaganish had been working in the local CHBSS Youth Protection Department when the chance arose. “It was an opportunity to continue my education,” she said. “Plus we got to see all the communities. I really liked the Native content and the native teachers; it helped me to grasp it better, to understand it all. The best part about it was just being together as a group, relying on each other. We’re all linked together now.”

The future of the program is uncertain. A clause in the JBNQA prevents the Cree School Board from committing any funds to post secondary education that takes place in the community, so only students who leave the community can receive funding. There was plenty of funding from the CHBSS, UQAT, the MEQ (Ministry of Education of Quebec), the nine band councils and the CRA Grand Council. This program was offered at no cost to the students. The tuition, travel, housing and food expenses were taken care of. The CHBSS is hoping to continue some kind of program, perhaps even offering a Master’s program if the logistics and funding can be figured out.

In any case, a big thank-you also goes out to those Cree entities that gave their financial support to make this program a reality. A thank-you also goes to the MEQ and UQAT for their support. A very well earned congratulations to the 41 students who graduated, with a special thank-you to their families for the support. May you have the courage to walk the path your educated mind chooses.