The Niskamoon Corporation honoured its newest graduating class July 15 with a golf tournament and a gala graduation ceremony for the 15 grads of two vocational programs, Automated Systems Electro-Mechanics, and Industrial Construction and Maintenance Mechanics.

With diplomas in hand, these grads are set to begin new careers as skilled workers at Hydro Quebec, a feat that just a few years ago seemed impossible, and for many, tantamount to a betrayal to Cree society.

On hand to celebrate their accomplishments were Matthew Mukash, who delivered the welcoming address; Gordon Blackned, Chairman of the Cree School Board; Violet Pachanos, Vice President of the Niskamoon Corporation; Kathy Shecapio, Niskamoon’s Regional Coordinator of Training and Employment, and many others.

The graduates were commended for their efforts as completing these programs is no simple feat. Not only did the students have to relocate with their families for three years, the courses were also delivered in French. Many of the students had to attend upgrading courses for math and science before they could even embark on their Niskamoon journey. Several others had to attend French instruction courses throughout their summers before commencing the formal studies.

“I couldn’t do that,” Mukash told an audience filled with bashful students, their adoring families, Niskamoon members and the Hydro Quebec employees who will be welcoming the grads into their workforce.

Though Mukash acknowledged the Crees’ difficult past with Hydro Quebec, he also spoke of moving forward in governance and coming to an understanding. A new chapter has begun with Hydro and Crees are now integrating into the corporation, he said. In his mind, the hatchet has been buried.

In an interview prior to the ceremonies, Mukash said, “When I left for school in pursuit of further studies in the south, my father told me to remember those virtues of survival. I think it is the same thing for the young people today, to have a good education. If you can not go back to the land, I always say, pursue your education and do the best that you can to succeed and this is really what we have seen today.”

Gordon Blackned of the Cree School Board helped present diplomas. For Blackned, the graduating students are not only a success on their own behalf, but an achievement of the Cree people.

“I think that the Crees had to fight for that recognition to obtain jobs on the worksite and through this, the previous La Grande agreement didn’t work out well,” said Blackned. When the Paix des Braves agreement was ratified, however, it provided for the kind of funding needed for programs like Niskamoon.

According to Blackned, the school board also did their part by reprioritizing science and math courses to help those looking to pursue futures with Hydro Quebec as secondary 5 students are now writing exams at the provincial level with some success.

“We are getting somewhere and I believe that in the next two, three, maybe even four years, we will have students graduating with maybe even higher marks in those disciplines,” said Blackned.

Niskamoon Vice President Violet Pachanos spoke on behalf of the corporation, saying this was only the beginning of their work. Expressing her congratulations to the grads in an interview with the Nation prior to her speech, she spoke of how the children of graduates will be enriched as a result of their parent’s sacrifice as they will always have permanent employment.

In her address, Pachanos spoke of how important hydro-electricity is as a resource, considering that fully half of Quebec’s electricity needs are supplied from Cree lands. Though Hydro currently employs fewer than 40 Cree employees at present (out of a total of 23,000), Pachanos was hopeful that the Hydro-Quebec would be able to fulfil the guaranteed number of employees-150-promised in the Cree Employment Agreement.

“It is possible for aboriginals to benefit from the huge hydro-electric resource produced on our lands and it is the wish that together with Hydro-Quebec and all of our partners we will attain the 150 permanent employment objectives by 2017,” said Pachanos.

Niskamoon’s Kathy Shecapio makes it a point to check in with those who have already graduated from the program to get feedback on their experience and to see how it could be improved. Though she said that they usually don’t say much other than to express gratitude, what they do say is, “bring in more Crees!”

Though the courses are quite difficult, given the language and technical demands, Shecapio says more is involved.

“It takes a lot of courage to say that this is what you want to do, especially

when you take into consideration the love-hate relationship that we have with Hydro.” said Shecapio.

Though the programs have gained momentum and the quality of the applications have improved since the first groups graduated through Niskamoon in 2006, Shecapio is not anticipating a waiting list to get into the programs in the next year. Since the 2008-2009 construction phase for Hydro began, it has lured away a great number of potential students looking for “fast cash.”

Once the layoffs begin, she predicts, more applicants will turn toward Niskamoon, and this concerns her to a certain degree. “If you look at what is going on right now with the youth in the communities or even the adults, there is not a lot of value that is being attached to education in the Cree communities,” said Shecapio.

Though he was unable to attend the event due to a recent stroke, Niskamoon President Billy Diamond made an address via closed circuit television. Despite having had surgery back in April and is now in the process of learning how to walk again, Diamond was never without his sense of humour. In reference to the bandages on his head and the peculiarity of the situation, Diamond made a joke of it, saying, “Luke, I am your father,” much to the delight of a roaring audience.

In all seriousness, he went on to speak of how these first few batches of graduates are the “trailblazers,” for their communities.

“If you look behind you, there is a whole new generation of young Crees who will follow you,” he said.

Hydro Quebec representatives also had much to say. The chief administrator and public relations director for the La Grande region, Michel Lemay, spoke of how well the integration had been going as the Crees are flourishing on the job site.

“Every time there is a graduation, it is a success for Hydro and a success for the Crees alike,” said Lemay.

In an address he made to the attendees on behalf of all of Hydro, Yves Lanoie said, “There is room for you at Hydro-Quebec and we will help you integrate into our family. We want you to become role models for the next employees as there are going to be many more to come.”

When it came to what these 15 “trailblazers” underwent during their studies, many were surprised to learn of their strife and perseverance. As the majority of the students are also parents of young families, many acknowledged the difficulty of balancing their work and home lives. One woman in the course, who was already the mother of three children between the ages of eight and 18, gave birth while in her first year at school.

“The course was too easy,” joked Paul Sealhunter as he played with his daughter Jessie-Lynn. Sealhunter graduated in Automated Systems and Electro-Mechanics from Centre Polymetier in Rouyn Noranda. As much as he was really grateful for the experience, he said he almost dropped out at one point.

Sealhunter had the misfortune of losing his grandmother during the first year of schol, his grandfather during the second, and just this past February, he lost his brother.

“All three years were pretty hard but my wife stayed with me through thick and thin. My parents too forced me to stay in school, I thought about quitting but I am just glad that I didn’t,” he said.

Nancy Pelchat and her husband, Clarence House, made the training a family affair. Nancy took the course along with her father, aunt and cousin; she graduated from the program two years ago and became an electrician. Following in her footsteps, her husband Clarence also enrolled in the program and was one of this year’s grads from the Automated Systems Electro-Mechanics course.

“I love it! It’s a nice living. I moved to Chisasibi this year. I just waited for him to finish his course; we are both working for Hydro now,” said Pelchat, who is presently on maternity leave.

Though she was anxious to start on the job, Pelchat insists that the actual transition into the work field was rather easy because she felt so well prepared and because she actually has a lot of fun with her Hydro comrades.

Pelchat was even surprised that her husband never once asked her for help with his homework even though she had studied the same subjects two years prior. House graduated with a special award for perfect attendance.

Despite the history between the Crees and Hydro, as time marches on some wrongs have been righted. Crees are finally integrating into the workforce and claiming some of the 150 promised jobs. With the mandate for training ending in 2017, Niskamoon still has plenty of room to graduate over 100 more students.

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