THE CREE School Board’s “Partners in Education” conference took place in Chisasibi on the 15th, 16th and 17th of November, 1994. Delegates were brought to the conference by Air Creebec and Air Inuit charters. (Air Wemindji were grounded and couldn’t be used.)
The organizers were expecting 500 people to attend and they were not far off the mark. Everyone involved in education such as teachers, school committees, consultants, directors and coordinators were invited.
There was a grand entry of delegates with Elders and youth flag carriers entering first. The entry was accompanied by drumming of the David Cox Memorial Singers The flags were the four colours of mankind: red, yellow, black and white.
Prayers were conducted in Cree and more drumming followed with all delegates gathered in a large circle in the gym. There was a special solo drum song by Elder David Neeposh of Waswanipi. A sacred fire was lit and maintained 24 hours a day in a teepee outside the school during the whole conference.
There was also a sweat lodge at milleage 61 for those who wanted healing. Anyone wishing to go was driven back and forth. Elders William and Sarah Ratteven built a camp in case some delegates wanted traditional accommodations.
The all-important practice of inviting Elders to sit with the delegates was done and it was considered very helpful. They were also invited to speak. (David and Suzanne Neeposh, Robbie and Sally Matthew Sr., William and Sarah Ratt, Robbie and Elizabeth Dick, Clifford and Juliet Bearskin were among the Elders.)
In one of the opening speeches that were made, Director-General Janie Pachano spoke about her trip to all the communities to meet with students. She said she found out many things that are causing problems for them.
Apparently, there is a very high drop-out rate among high school students. Currently, the high school graduation rate is only at 17 percent. Boys drop out more often than girls.
Some people suggested that a Cree CEGEP might better prepare students to study down south. Since some students finish high school very young, they may find it more difficult to be away from home and family to attend CEGEP and university.
The Youth Task Force in Education were also invited. This group of youth headed by Glen Cooper went to all the Cree communities and and the southern cities that have large numbers of Cree post-secondary students (Ottawa, Montreal, North Bay). They met with students to hear their concerns and a preliminary report was issued.
The students going to school in the south don’t feel at home at the Cree School Board offices and they also feel like they no longer have any real contact with their communities. They feel they are on their own too much when certain problems arise.
This can be one of the reasons why they decide to leave school and return home. The school board is trying ways to give better support to post-secondary students.
It was obvious to everyone that the youth voice must be heard. They often feel they are talked about behind closed doors and never get to give their side of the story.
Natazia Mukash also told about certain problems encountered by the secondary students of Badabin Eyou School in Whapmagoostui and how alone they felt when no one from the school or the Cree School Board regional office would support them. She said certain students felt threatened by a teacher when he took students into a classroom one at a time to interrogate them.
Another issue that came up over and over is that the Cree children start school so early, at age four. People say that at four years a child is not even able to speak his or her language properly. Veteran teacher of Cree culture, Margaret Bearskin, said that at age four a child should still be taught from its mother’s arm and that it is like we are just letting go of our child for someone else to look after.
Some teachers of these young students say that at times they feel like baby-sitters because the children need more attention. The size of the class in these lower grades also makes it difficult to really give a child the time he or she needs and wants from the teacher.
One major concern was that there is not much parental involvement in our local schools. When Indian Affairs ran the schools, the parents were actually discouraged from coming into the school and this may be one of the reasons why some parents, even today, don’t feel welcome in the school.
Another teacher, Sarah Herodier, spoke about the bitter disappointment she sees in children who know that no one from their family will come to the classroom on parents’ night. She suggested that if a parent can’t come, maybe someone else from the family can take their place. Even young children benefit from family support.
People who work in Cree programs and teachers who teach Cree culture want Cree language and culture to be very prominent in the schools, since this IS the Cree School Board. Some teachers who took a group of children to a camp for 10 days told of how happy the children were and how reluctant they were to return to Chisasibi. She said they told her that they wanted to stay another day, another week, another year.
Psychologist Dr Renee Stevens of McGill University gave a workshop on “How to Better Prepare Our Students for Studying in the South,” and a short discussion followed.
There was a Global Education Plan progress report given by Susan Runnels, director of Education Services, and Emmet Nolan, Supervisor of Schools. People who took part in this workshop discussed Professional Development, Instructional Services, Cree Programs and Student Services, and wrote their recommendations on these various projects and activities. Their ideas will be compiled and sent to their schools for further discussion and study. Emmet Nolan also mentioned that the Cree School Board has been in existence since 1978 and much energy had to be given to building schools in each community in the beginning years.
As far as the Cree Language of Instruction Program is concerned, the Grade 1 program is complete and implemented in Whapmagoostui, Wemindji, Chisasibi and Waskaganish in 1995-96. The Grade 4 program is to be developed in 1995-96 and the target date for implementation in Chisasibi and Waskaganish is 1996-97. People involved agree that children taught in their own language understand better and so therefore learn faster when taught in their own language.
School Board Chairman Paul Gull conducted a workshop of the school committees. He says that their role could change significantly and that they will have more power. Some teachers feel that certain school committees are not as involved as they were in the past. The teachers apparently enjoyed meeting with them too so that their concerns could be addressed. These committees play a big role in the selection of teachers but they feel that they often don’t have the final word.
The school committees were also wondering about political involvement in their decision-making, especially when they get recommendations from their local Band Council.
Paul Gull said it is helpful for the Band Councils to be involved in the education of the children. Some wondered why one must be a parent before he can sit on the school committee.
There seems to be apathy among some of the Cree population as far as their local school is involved and one delegate from Wemindji said that in a recent meeting for the election of the local school commissioner, less than 20 people showed up.
The week ended with a special catered banquet (all lunches and suppers were catered) by Jean-Paul Beauregard with a large team of assistants, most of whom were women from Chisasibi in the main gym. Gifts and acknowledgements were given out to the large number of people who made this conference possible. Again this was accompanied by drumming, prayers and carrying of the flags.