The people decided it was a time for a change.

Voters from the nine Cree communities elected new Cree School Board Chairman Gordon Blackned, the Director General of the CSB, to replace incumbent William Mianscum during a run-off election in early August.

Blackned took 1,350 votes to Mianscum’s 846 to win a three-year term.

The new chairperson was excited when the Nation caught up with him.

“It’s a good feeling,” he said. “I think what I was looking for was some relief from all the management and administrative responsibilities. I’ve been there [as Director General] for over 10 years and it was time for me to move on to something else. My passion has always been Cree education and for me I think that was the direction I wanted to move.”

Deputy Director General Abraham Jolly will act as the interim Director General until a permanent replacement can be found.

Blackned was nominated three years ago to run for Chairman, but he declined, citing a need to put at least a few more years’ energy into the Director General’s position.

“I was looking at some of the things we had worked on within the Cree School Board, more on the area of the three-year pedagogical plan. I wanted to see through that plan and the necessary follow up,” he said.

Blackned, who is originally from Waskaganish, received his teaching degree at McGill University and has held many education-related positions in Eeyou Istchee over the years, including as a teacher, principal and an almost 11-year tenure as DG.

“What I propose to do is focus on improving the schools and increasing the students’ success and achievement. I feel that the students need to have more focus in terms of delivery of the services they’re getting in the schools. Although it is good now, I think we need to move forward and upgrade that focus and try to achieve a higher success rate within the Cree School Board.”

Blackned also talked about being more visible within the communities so people can “put a name with a face.”

Blackned said that one way to improve the educational experience of young Crees is to seek out more Cree teachers.

“I am thinking of making the schools more Cree. We’re moving away from that area. I don’t want to put down the non-native teachers and principal, but I think that, more and more, the schools are pushing aside the Cree culture and language aspect of Cree education. The quality of the language and culture is diminishing,” said Blackned, who also wants to see more activity out on the land rather than in the schools.

“That culture reinforces the language and we need to preserve and protect our Cree language. There needs to be more funding for that aspect of Cree education.”

A Cree regime

He also addressed the sagging graduation rates and high absenteeism in many schools in Eeyou Istchee. While he said they are getting better, there still remains room for a large improvement, something Blackned blames on the differences in culture and language.

“When we talk about the education standards, we are talking about the standards of a foreign society or environment,” said Blackned. “I think that at the school board we have the right to teach how we want to teach in our own schools. The past 30 years we’ve been following the Ministry of Education of Quebec guidelines, or the Régime pédagogique, that’s applied throughout the rest of Quebec. We haven’t made any efforts to develop our own Cree Régime pédagogique. I’ve made statements to that effect and it’s fallen on deaf ears. I am now as the chairman of the school board; I may have some influence to change some of this.”

Although Blackned sounded a bit harsh towards non-natives, his message was to empower more Cree educators and encourage them to go further.

“We still have a large number of non-natives working in education and health and social services. We need to replace them. There is so much turnover. Some people are there for a few years and then they’re gone. When we recruit Crees, they stay there for a long time.

“Right now we have a successful teacher-training program which we’ve had for 30 years. I went through that program myself. I started out as a teacher through Indian Affairs before education was handed over to the Cree School Board.”

Blackned said that part of the solution in hiring more Cree educators is a new program currently under review. A couple years ago, the CSB introduced a course that certifies a teacher to teach at the secondary level, he said.

But the teacher-training program does not have that special certification, complained Blackned, who added that a current project, the reworking and upgrading of the teacher-training program, will qualify graduates over a four-year period to work in Eeyou Istchee as well as the rest of Canada.

“It’s a very exciting project and we’re looking forward to recruiting our first group of candidates this fall,” he said.

“When Cree students move to non-native towns it’s a culture shock to them. That affects their learning and they sometimes do not complete their programs down south. On the other hand, when we have vocational or technical programs [in Eeyou Istchee] we have a very high rate of success. The teacher-training program, which is an accredited program, is one example of a high level of success.”

Blackned questions why Crees do not pursue other programs, such as social work or in dentistry, which would qualify people to do the jobs non-natives now perform. “Those are the things that I want to try and put in place within Cree territory,” Blackned emphasized.

“Cree education constantly needs to be reviewed and revised. We can’t just say we developed something in 2000 and that’s what we have to follow. Education changes day by day. Policies change, guidelines change, so we have to constantly change our plan. When we see the problems we have to make sure we address them and amend the plan accordingly.”