Native communities across Canada are facing an education crisis, and the James Bay Cree are not immune. Nationwide, Native students had an average school completion rate that was almost half that of the national average in the 1999-2000 school year: 39 per cent compared to 75 per cent for the rest of the population. In 2001-2002, as many students in the Cree School Board interrupted or quit school as those who actually graduated.

It’s a problem that school officials and parents will attempt to tackle March 25 in Mistissini. There will be a public presentation for parents about the dispute over the teaching of the second language, the CLIP program and drop-out rates. It will be attended by the Mistissini school administration, the Mistissini school commission, the school committee, the Mistissini band council and Cree School Board members.

In 2001-2002, there were 898 students in schools throughout the Cree communities. Of them, 94 were in secondary 5, and 61 graduated. Thirty-seven others quit school due to low motivation, 22 students were asked to leave and six students left for traditional teaching.

In all, 65 students left school without graduating. On top of that, each student on average missed 38 days out of a possible 189 school days. Reasons cited for quitting include low motivation, being asked to leave by the school and leaving for traditional pursuits.

According to statistics obtained from the Cree School Board, the number of students in school drops dramatically after Secondary 3, Grade 9. For example, in Ouje-Bougoumou in 2000-2001, none of the students in Grade 10 went on to Grade 11 the next year, and none of the students who had been in Grade 9 went to Grade 10. For two years, there were no graduates out of a potential 26 students.

These numbers are cause for great alarm, as today’s youth are going to be the leaders of tomorrow. In this increasingly high tech world, having a formal education and a high school diploma is key to obtaining and keeping employment. For the Cree, education is doubly important because of the nature of the various agreements, the autonomy that exists under these agreements and the employment opportunities that spring from them.

Why are the students dropping out? According to the Cree School Board’s findings, the leading reason is “low motivation.” In a Toronto Star article dated January 31, students hanging out at the mall were quoted as finding school “boring.” Some blame it on the welfare system, stating that the subsidies will take care of people without them having to work.

Independent research commissioned by Mistissini has shown that the Cree Instructional Language Program (CLIP) may be a factor for why students are not staying in school. Under CUR students are immersed in the Cree language from kindergarten to Grade 3. At Grade 2, a second language is introduced. Then in Grade 7 instruction begins in a third language. To be fair the school says that students have been weaker in English, French or Cree curriculums.

Research shows that students, who are otherwise healthy and of normal or above average intelligence, are struggling with the multiple languages of instruction. While it is normal to retain at least 80 per cent of taught information, the Cree students are only at 55 per cent.

The Vice-Principal at Voyageur Memorial High School in Mistissini, says research demonstrates that, “as the [students] came through the system, the mother tongue wasn’t getting stronger, it was getting weaker, so when they were transferred into the second language there wasn’t enough there to transfer. By the time they got to Grade 3, it was at zero per cent.”

Some teachers say that it’s too late to introduce the second language in Grade 2; that the kids are not picking it up. So the parents suggested 50-50 instruction: half in Cree, half in a second language.

However, “We cannot do that according to school policy,” says the Vice-Principal. “We can be fired for implementing something like that. To change all that, we have to go to the public, the parents. We tell them of the four to five options that they can choose, and then we will take it to the Cree School Board.”

As for the drop-out rate, “We don’t call someone a dropout,” says the Vice-Principal. “The researcher tells us that a student does not drop out of secondary I if he’s only got a Grade 5 level.”

Whatever the reasons, students are leaving both high school and elementary school. “What we are hoping from this meeting is that the parents will agree to a lot of changes that need to be done at the schools,” says the Vice-Principal. “Each community is different in terms of the language of exposure. We have to look at the community and adapt the program according to the community.”

The meeting will start at 9 am March 25. For more information on the presentation, please contact Alain Bellemare at Voyageur Memorial School, 418-923-3485.