Addressing Cree Education

To the Nation,

This letter is in response to the editorial by Daniel David (“The Cree way”, Vol. 19, No. 06, January 27, 2012). As Chairperson of the Cree School Board, I welcome the opinions and perspectives of others regarding educational issues and the Cree School Board. I was disappointed, however, to see that Mr. David’s editorial contained some inaccuracies regarding the Cree as a Language of Instruction Program (CLIP).

First, I do not dispute the dire situation and potential for loss of some First Nations’ languages. I recall a study (Norris 2007) which claimed that the Cree language was one of three First Nations languages in Canada that had a better chance to survive. Despite this optimistic view of the Cree language, I agree that we, as a Cree Nation, cannot be too complacent about how we preserve our language. The onus for the preservation and perpetuation of the Cree language should not, however, fall solely on the shoulders of the Cree School Board.

Second, the Cree School Board has been in existence for thirty-four (34) years since its incorporation in 1978. Fifty years ago, the education of Cree children was under the auspices of the federal government. As most Cree know with the exception of Mr. David it seems, many Cree children were forced to attend residential schools; Cree was forbidden in these schools. Yet it survived. The right to include Cree language and culture into the curriculum was gained through the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement.

Third, the theory is children who have a strong foundation in their maternal languages will learn a second language faster than children who do not. The reality in the Cree world of today is children who come to Day Care Centres, Pre-K and Kindergarten are speaking some Cree/English, Cree/French or only Cree; therefore, most Cree children do not possess a strong foundation in their maternal language when they sta rt school.

Fourth, the Cree School Board conducted an extensive assessment on the state of Cree Education in 2006-07. The report, “Communication, Accountability for School Improvement” (CAFSI), was tabled at a Council of Commissioners’ meeting in 2008. In addition to its CAFSI Report, the CSB also commissioned a research project which specifically focused on the CLI Program. Both studies found that the children were not mastering any of the three languages. These two CSB research projects validated the results of the one conducted by the community of Mistissini a few years earlier. The findings of the two CSB research projects were given to the parents and other members who participated in the CSB Community Tours in the winter of 2011. At these community tours, 70% of the parents and other community members indicated their preference for the 50-50 language model while another group preferred the 80-20 model. As well, as I understand from the Deputy Director General, the CSB also conducted two surveys for parents in Chisasibi wherein the parents indicated their preference for the SO-SO language model. In his editorial, Mr. David created an impression that the CSB did not consult with the parents; he could have easily verified this fact had he contacted the Cree School Board.

Fifth, at the Joint Council Board and Cree School Board meeting held in November 2011, the Director of Education Services for the CSB, very succinctly, explained why the CLI Program did not work. The CLI Program, she stated, was rushed through and was not well thought out. The development of the curriculum and training of the Cree language teachers were done almost simultaneously; the teachers were expected to develop their teaching materials while teaching. No in depth training was provided to Cree language teachers to provide them with the specializations in curriculum development and language teaching. There was also no process in place for monitoring and evaluating the CLI Program on a Board-wide basis. There were no specific outcomes set to identify the skills and competencies which the students were to master at each level. Without these pertinent benchmarks, it was not possible to evaluate the program to ensure the students mastered the language skills and competencies they should have attained at each level.

Faced with the stark reality on the state of Cree education, the Council of Commissioners and its administration had to make some difficult decisions. Since 2008, the CSB developed a Council Policy Manual, a Strategic Action Plan and a School Improvement Plan. As well, because of the findings of the research on the CLI Program, it was decided to do a thorough review of the Cree aspects of the curriculum, namely Cree Culture and Cree Language, both of which are on hold for the time being. All this was explained to the parents and members who attended the Community tours.

There seems to be some confusion regarding the Cree and Culture programs; some are erroneously assuming that the CSB is doing away with the CLIP, Cree language and Cree Culture altogether. This is far from the truth. For some time now, some schools have had to suspend either the Cree language or Culture program or both because of the lack of qualified personnel to teach the courses in these programs. In addition, some Cree parents are asking for the introduction of the second languages at an earlier stage than is allowed under the CLI Program. It is safe to say that no one at the Council and administrative levels of the CSB wants to see Cree Language or Cree Culture taken out of the Cree education system. Rather the aim is to do a proper evaluation and review of these aspects. The other pertinent task is to identify the skills and competencies that are to be attained at each grade level. A proper system for monitoring and evaluating the programs needs to be developed. The Cree School Board hopes to develop a proper, better CLI Program and Cree Culture curriculum, as well as developing Cree curricula in history and in other disciplines with the assistance of Cree Elders and Cree education professionals.

I’ve always assumed that good journalism strives to present an unbiased view of an issue. Rather than sensationalizing the Cree Language issue and presenting some inaccuracies, Mr. David could have done better justice to the topic had he researched his topic properly. The issues of Cree language and Cree culture are important to the Cree School Board. It has to carefully consider the prominent role these two aspects will have within the Cree education without repeating the same mistakes as it did in the past.

Kathleen J. Wootton
Chairperson, Cree School Board