On July 11, Kathleen Wootton sat with bated breath, waiting for the last two polling stations to submit their results for the Cree School Board Chairperson elections. She trailed her fellow nominee Kenny Blacksmith by just three votes, with only Eastmain and Mistissini results to come. Eastmain’s totals came in: Wootton jumped to a tenuous 15-vote lead, not nearly enough to be called safe with Mistissini’s thousands of eligible voters yet to be heard from. Then, the cavalry arrived.

The Cree Nation reelected Kathleen Wootton as Chairperson of the Cree School Board after Mistissini’s results turned an apparent nail-biter into a near-landslide victory.

“I had a good feeling about Mistissini because a lot of people had already told me they would be voting my way,” Wootton said, the twinge of remembered nervousness in her laugh. “But whenever a race is that close, you’re thinking at the back of your mind, ‘What happens now?’ I really wasn’t sure for a while, there, but Mistissini really pushed me ahead.”

In the end, Wootton collected just under 58 per cent of the votes, with just over a third of those votes coming from Mistissini. She remains Chairperson of the CSB, a position she has held for the past 10 months.

Last summer, Gordon Blackned stepped down from his post as Chairperson after being elected Chief of Waskaganish. A special election was called for a 10-month term to bridge the gap between Blackned’s departure and the end of his three-year incumbency. Wootton won a two-stage election after defeating Kenny Blacksmith in a runoff. Ten months later, Wootton triumphed in a rematch.

The former Deputy Chief of Mistissini says the progress made during her first months in office was the reason for her renewed mandate. Wootton cited her role in pushing forward the Local School Improvement Plan, which stresses Cree language and culture in the curriculum, and in separating the governance structure of the CSB from the administrative end, an improvement she says minimizes political interference or friction.

Wootton promises to further solidify the prominence of Cree language and culture in the curriculum in a collaborative process.

“We developed an ownership linkage plan to give an opportunity for Cree parents and other interested parties to participate in the defining what Cree education is, developing a Cree education system and to be able to inform and provide advice about what Cree aspects should be included in Cree educations,” she said from her office in Mistissini. “A lot of people have worries about Cree language and culture, which are really important because they’re the basis of our identity. We want to make sure that they are entrenched in Cree education.”

The vote also highlighted Cree parents’ growing disengagement with the decisions being made about their kids’ education. This year’s elections only garnered a 13 per cent participation rate, down from 23 per cent in 2009.

“It is definitely a concern that people don’t seem to have an interest in elections for the Cree School Board,” said Kenny Loon, the returning officer in charge of the elections.

Loon was hesitant to speculate on the reason behind this, but Wootton argued that history had much to do with parents keeping their kids’ education at an arms length.

“Traditionally, parents haven’t been encouraged to be part of their kids’ education system,” she said. “Even when we were setting up the Cree School Board many of the parents kind of stayed away from the school. I think, in their mind, they didn’t see that they had a role in the education of their children.”

Wootton hopes the CSB’s renewed effort to engage parents will help not only to develop a well-accepted curriculum, but will also improve graduation rates. Kids are more likely to succeed when their parents are more engaged in their education, she says, because education becomes an entrenched force not just in school, but at home and in the community. This, she says, is key to her broader goal over the next three years.

“Providing top-quality education that will give our students the kind of knowledge and skills they’ll need to participate in Cree society and society in general: that’s the one thing I would really like to see through.”