Both youth and land and their respective futures were on the table for discussion at Council Board meetings where local chiefs, Cree governance, members of various boards and other concerned individuals came together September 23 and 24 at Montreal’s Delta Hotel to contemplate what to do.
September 23 was devoted entirely to the fate of the offshore islands that lie off the Wemindji portion of the James Bay coast from South Twin Island in the north to Weston Island and Old Factory Islands in the south.
The community of Wemindji has been working on a proposal in conjunction with three different government departments – Parks Canada, The Department of Fisheries and Oceans and Environment Canada – for a Marine Protected Area project. For cultural and ecological reasons they are looking to expand the initially proposed area and have worked on this in consultation with the communities of Eastmain and Chisasibi.
Both the Cree and the Inuit have been trying to negotiate a deal with the federal government to protect the offshore islands and their surrounding waters since 1974 when the James Bay agreement-in-principal was signed. While the talks have broken down several times over the last 34 years, the Inuit did manage to sign a treaty this past June.
The proposed treaty would see ownership of the protected lands and waterways shared jointly between the Cree and the Inuit.
“We were talking about a wildlife management system, a planning commission and other things like that,” said Chisasibi Chief Roderick Pachano.
Protecting the area would not only ensure the continued traditional practices of both communities but it would also ensure environmental protection for the area from potential problems like marine shipping and potential fallout from industrial development.
The Council Board meetings saw an overview of what the negotiations have been since the 1970s until present.
“A couple more meetings and we should have an agreed text with all of the issues resolved so it is a negotiated treaty,” said Pachano.
Once the agreed upon text is ready, consultations will begin in the communities and then a referendum will occur so that the treaty can be passed.
Part of the objective is to ensure that the proposed treaty would be reflective of Cree values and beliefs and equally important that there would be a sufficient structure for the treaty to be implemented.
Having learned from the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, Pachano said, “This also will provide for the Cree and the Inuit in the joint areas to work together with the government to make sure that the agreement is implemented the way that it is supposed to be.”
Cree School Board
On September 24, the focus was on the overwhelming problems within the Cree School Board and its institutions.
The day began with a letter addressed to Grand Chief Matthew Mukash from the principals of the CSB.
It detailed how substance abuse is rampant in the schools in all nine communities and that there are a number of social impacts that stem from this problem. Substances such as crystal meth, alcohol, gas/propane and even liquid paper are being abused to the point of addiction by not only teenagers but children as young as 8.
“As school managers, we feel that we are running a social services centre rather than a learning and educational centre,” the letter stated.
The letter also pointed out how finding solutions to these problems is nearing impossible to the point of actually having to enlist the aid of the Grand Chief and Council as Youth Protection, Social Services and the Police are already overwhelmed. Beyond that, parent meetings to address these issues are not working, strategic planning sessions go unattended and the implementation of these strategies is not happening and the CHB receives little feedback from the social services.
The principals would like to see curfews imposed, awareness/ prevention programs, support lines for both children and parents, in-community treatment programs, an interdisciplinary intervention group and more recreation programs for youth among many other suggestions.
“This meeting was called by the Grand Chief and Deputy Grand Chief and they called for a meeting jointly with the commissioners. This is something that has not happened since 1988. I think there is a realization here that these issues are very serious,” said the CSB’s General Director Abraham Jolly.
The recent CSB review was also discussed in conjunction with the substance and related social problems that the school board has been facing. Just as the students themselves are not doing well, neither are the actual institutions.
“What needs to come out at the Cree School Board is really our implementation plans based on the educational and school board reviews that we were talking about,” said Jolly.
According to Jolly, the framework for education has not seemed clear since 1978 when the education act was created through the JBQNA. What the CSB goes on is a mixture of its own programming and that from the Ministry of Education.
Despite all the attempts of setting up a Cree Education Act since it was initiated in the late 80s or early 90s, Jolly said that there has not been much movement in legitimizing it since then.
As far as Jolly is concerned a lot of clarification is needed to define what “Cree education” is and what the Cree curriculum should look like.
“I think we are more involved with the idea of Cree control of education rather than Cree education itself in terms of how we develop the curriculum,” said Jolly.
Jolly also pointed to the language-development problems within the first few grades of school. In 1988 it was decided that Cree language instruction would be part of the Cree curriculum in the first three grades, but it is not being taught sufficiently. If the language is not developed properly before children hit Grade 3 it will have lasting effects on their academic life. Jolly said this is a root problem for the CHB.
Once a student has completed the first three years of the Cree Language of Instruction Program, the issue then becomes how the student will adapt to a Grade 4 curriculum in the chosen language of English or French.
“Again, the transition is telling us that kids do not comprehend the language,” said Jolly.
As a result, Jolly said that the CSB is now consulting external sources to see how language delivery can be improved in the early years of schooling.
It was decided unanimously at the Council Board meetings that there be a special General Assembly held in Chisasibi November 4-6 to address the crisis within the CSB and its schools which would involve social services, the health board and law enforcement.
CSB Chairman Gordon Blackned felt positive about the day of talks as it resulted in the upcoming general assembly.
“People are asking for solutions. I think this discussion will give us time to think about the issues and work towards finding solutions,” said Blackned.
Speaking on behalf of the youth at these meetings was Youth Grand Chief Stacy Bear.
While Bear’s own experience within a CSB school was a positive one, a decade later she is very aware of how things had changed dramatically. Bear sees the problems that the youth are facing today as not simply being a matter of pedagogical weakness or social sicknesses but a fundamental loss in one of the most primary of Cree values – respect.
Though she recognized the importance of the meeting taking place, what she felt was missing from it was the opinion of those most concerned by the school board discussions – the youth.
In terms of the social issues that are consuming the CSB’s focus, one basic ideology in terms of prevention that Bear put forward was that of social responsibility.
“Every single one of us as individuals needs to start being the example for kids because every one of us is a role model.
I am a role model to the younger generation, the Elders are role models to all of us and even five-year-olds are role models to four-year-olds,” said Bear.
Grand Chief Matthew Mukash acknowledged the problems that the youth are facing do not stem solely from their academic surroundings, but are also rooted in the homes and elsewhere.
He pointed to how it is time that young people relearn the Cree value system – which has been diminished over time as a result of colonization and modernization – as a means of addressing their current struggles.
“A lot of problems are solved when a child knows where his or her ancestors come from and those cultural teachings. The Cree value system is the first thing that you need to learn to be able to respect yourself. They (Elders) tell you, if you are not a happy person, you are not going to make others happy. The teachings always start with you.”