Mistissini parents have had enough of high dropout rates and the low number of graduates. And they want some major changes at the Voyageur Memorial Schools to ensure their children’s future success.

At a local education conference held in late March and early April in Mistissini, concerned parents, band council members, teachers, elders, school committee and school administration members gathered to learn about the findings of research on language retention. They also proposed possible changes in direction for the Cree School Board (CSB) that could have ramifications for all Cree communities.

The changes focus on the language of instruction: while the Cree

Language Instruction Program (CLIP) has been a success in other communities, it is not working in Mistissini. The research at the schools has shown that the majority of the students are not retaining enough of the languages to succeed in school.

“You need to be able to master one language effectively in order to master a second language, and that is not happening,” said Mistissini School Commissioner Beverly Quinn. “Our children are not even mastering their own language.”

CSB Chairperson William Miamscum admits that since an assessment has never been done, the general thinking at the CSB is that the CLIP is working. “This is the first assessment since it was implemented in 1989 and it indicates that there are some serious problems here,” Miamscum said.

He also said that the strength of the Cree language in the southern communities was not at the same level when the CLIP was implemented, which put them at a disadvantage from the start. “Our teachers were not qualified,” Miamscum admitted. “There were no materials to be used in the classrooms. We dropped the ball basically and we have never been able to pick it up.”

There is a high probability of a referendum, at which point the parents will be asked to choose between three options of language instruction. The options will most certainly go against the CSB policy and section 16.0.10 of the JBNQA, which states that Cree is the teaching language.

Quinn points out that the community does not want to get rid of the CLIP “It’s not that we don’t want Cree as a language of instruction. We want to preserve our language and culture, but in an effective way. They have that right and that opportunity but somehow we’re not clicking them together. We know the students can do better, given the proper tools they will be able to do it.”

The Mistissini chief and council have been aware of the problems for years, according to Chief John Longchap, who says council provided the funding for the research.

“The parents are more concerned now and it’s them that put forth these recommendations,” Longchap observed. “We want to be part of the process and to assist in whatever way we can.”

The chief was encouraged by the turnout at the conference and wants to see the continuation of the different parties working together as they have up to now. “The situation is real and something has to be done. We have to work together, the bottom line is the education of our children,” he said.

While there is a consensus that change is needed, what to do and how to implement that change is the task at hand. One of the options is to have a 50-50 curriculum from pre-kindergarten up to Grade 6: half instruction in Cree, half in a second language (either English or French), another option is to have Cree only pre-K and Kindergarten, then for Grades 1-6, teach a 20-80 ratio: 20 per cent of the instruction in Cree, 80 per cent in the second language.

From the nine options presented at the meeting, three will be chosen by the school committee, which will most likely be presented in a referendum to the community.

At the secondary school, plans to introduce a vocational program are in the works for students who want that option. Another option the school committee is looking at is to suspend the French sector of the school until the new generation comes in, with all those at risk of failing in the French sector moving to the English sector.

The hope is to have some concrete changes in place for the next school year but it is a long process with potentially big changes for the community. At this point, the CSB is waiting for the recommendations from the school committee.

“I hope the parents realize that it’s going to take some time to make some changes,” says Miamscum. “It’s not going to happen overnight, even if they go through with the referendum. What it will do is give [the CSB] direction, to go back and revisit this policy and perhaps even to the extent of amending it.”