Jenna Newton is difficult to peg down for an interview.
Aside from working up to 45 hours a week at three part-time jobs, she’s a full-time student, completing her teaching certificate and master’s in elementary education at San Francisco State University.
A member of the Cree Nation of Chisasibi who grew up in California, Newton says paying for school has been tough.
“I grew up with the expectation of funding from the Cree School Board,” she said in a brief phone interview between a work shift and the start of a class. “It’s put a huge financial strain on me.”
Newton is hopeful a new resolution adopted during last month’s Cree Nation AGA will bring relief. It endorses a broader, more inclusive interpretation of the “10-year clause,” which governs who is granted beneficiary status under the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (JNBQA).
But the Cree School Board (CSB) says Newton shouldn’t get her hopes up. CSB chairperson Kathleen Wooten explains that unless the JNBQA is amended, Cree post-secondary education funding will continue to be awarded “according to the status quo.”
The AGA resolution would significantly increase the number of Crees who benefit from the JBNQA.
It holds that any Crees living outside of Cree territory who maintain ties to their communities and visit at least once every 10 years are entitled to benefits. Moreover, the Grand Council adopted an additional resolution saying that anyone under the age of 28 is exempted from the clause, meaning the majority of Crees seeking post-secondary funding would have access to it.
The resolutions were presented by Joanne Newton, Jenna’s mother, who like her daughter has maintained close ties to Mistissini, a community where her parents still live. The two visit the community regularly.
Joanne Newton is heartened by the resolution and says it reflects the spirit of the JBNQA.
“The ‘us’ versus ‘them’ sentiment,” she said, “does not reflect our traditional Cree values or our historical perspective.”
According to Wooten, however, implementing the resolution would be disastrous for the CSB’s Post-Secondary Student Services Program.
“If we interpret the 10-year clause that way, we will lose the program for sure. The government will simply say we are not honouring the agreement,” Wooten said.
Wooten says the program was almost cut in the 1990s by the federal and Quebec governments because of a dramatic increase in the number of applications. She says both governments feel the program is overly generous and would seize any opportunity to cut it, leaving Crees to seek post-secondary funding through Indian Affairs.
“The less the government pokes its nose into our business the better for us,” Wooten argued.
Wooten is sympathetic to Jenna Newton’s situation but says there is a simple solution for people in her situation: simply move back to their communities for a six-month period, thereby establishing residency and circumventing the 10-year clause.
Wooten says both the Grand Chief and Commerce Secretary informed her during the AGM that the resolution is simply a nonbinding recommendation.
Until the actual JBNQA is renegotiated, Wooten says the CSB will continue to award funding according to their interpretation of the 10-year clause
For Allan Jolly, acting chief of the Cree of MoCreebec, it’s nothing new.
“It’s one thing to pass resolutions,” he said. “It’s another for them to be carried out. We had a number of resolutions passed. But they were never followed through on.”
Jolly should know. The MoCreebec have been asking the Cree Government for a more inclusive interpretation of the 10-year clause for over 30 years.
He says that the Grand Assembly passed similar resolutions every five or six years, but never followed through when it comes to negotiating an amendment with Ottawa and Quebec.
Until recently, the MoCreebec were engaged in a lawsuit against the Cree Nation to change the 10-year clause. That’s been dropped in favour of workshops with the School Board and Grand Council.
Jolly is hopeful the MoCreebec will come to an agreement. But he says that renegotiating the 10-year clause is a complicated process, and in order for it go forward all communities need to be involved.
“Annual General Assembly resolutions can be good, but you need someone to walk it through all the way up to the top for any real action to be done. We need all the Cree communities to come together in dealing with the interpretation.”
For Jenna Newton, trying to gain funding has been trying, exhausting experience. She is frustrated by her interactions with the CSB. “For me, it’s been a very stressful ordeal. It’s been a political run around; they never gave us a straight answer.”
She would love to teach in Mistissini, but does not speak Cree. Her mother and grandparents, she says, were robbed of that ability by residential schools. But whatever happens, Newton said, she will maintain her ties to the community.