Education has been a hot topic in Eeyou Istchee for some time now between the recent Cree School Board elections and various education reforms that have brought new information into the public view.

In light of this, the CSB held a symposium in downtown Montreal from October 5-6 to get a good look at how they could improve not just the quality of education in the north but to also look at how to improve the schools themselves.

The multi-faceted event not only brought teachers, guidance councilors, psycho-educators, student-affairs technicians, administrators and directors from the CSB together to learn and share in a group environment but the CSB also devoted a portion of the time during the banquet to look at where they had come from and where they were going.

During the October 6 banquet, Calvin Mackie, PhD, an award-winning mentor, motivational speaker and successful entrepreneur, gave an upbeat speech to the symposium participants.

A large portion of the celebratory banquet was also devoted to honouring 46 individuals who were retiring from the CSB.

The symposium itself was put on by a professional development group called Solution Tree that put on a two-day seminar that explored the concept of “Professional Learning Communities.”

According to their literature provided at the symposium, “a Professional Learning Community (PLC) is a collaboration of teachers, administrators, parents and students who work together to seek out the best practices, test them in the classroom, continuously improve the processes and focus on results.”

CSB Director General Abraham Jolly said he thought the concept would lend itself very well to the CSB teachers, administrators and directors, who as a group are ultimately focused on improving schools. The symposium was done from this perspective. The conference also served for an ideal setting for the CSB’s plenary sessions for the school year.

Impressed with what the PLC concept has been able to do for schools all over the world, Jolly said that interim deputy DG Joel McNeil, who has been studying the concept over the years, introduced it to the CSB.

“It has come forward at this time that we need to really invest in what professional learning communities are all about. This is something that emerged for us in this symposium,” said Jolly.

From Jolly’s perspective, bringing together the entire CSB staff was integral to working on effective change for the benefit of those both working for and attending CSB schools, the approach was global.

For Gordon Blackned, the CSB’s newly elected chair who is just embarking on his second term, the symposium concept went down very well. For him, the symposium was a new way of getting all partners in education to participate at improving the school system at a local level.

Though he has not been back in the saddle for long since the election, Blackned said that he has every intention of overseeing all of his campaign pledges.

“The conference addresses a lot of the areas that need to be improved. I want to focus on improving schools and achieving student success, and this has primarily been the scope of the sessions this week and I am very happy about that,” said Blackned.

More than anything, Blackned said that the symposium had been a wonderful opportunity for everyone to be discussing things collaboratively and then working them out together to resolve the problems within the schools.

Though the CSB has been dealing with a very high dropout rate in recent years along with numerous problems resulting from students possessing a low reading level, when it comes to those in charge of administering education, the symposium proved to be a good asset to combat these issues.

To keep all those who attended the event focused on positive change, their dinnertime motivational speaker, Calvin Mackie, spoke of what an education really meant to him and what it was like to live without it.

Mackie, who was born, raised and still lives in New Orleans, spoke of his own hardship, having grown up poor but athletically gifted and having the expectation that his sports ability would carry him through college. Unfortunately a shoulder injury ended his sports career and left him having to start again from the beginning, catch up on his academic skills and struggle to get by.

In the end, Mackie came out on top with a BS in mathematics from Morehouse College in Atlanta, a BS in mechanical engineering, an MS in mechanical engineering and a PhD in mechanical engineering all from Georgia Tech in Atlanta. He also possesses an honourary doctorate in divinity from Louisiana Bible College.

“My overall message to the children in the world is that we treat ignorance like it’s a stock on Wall Street. My message to the children is one of life and that life is an acronym for living intelligently forever. Everything that you do and everything that you learn should be giving to life rather than taking away from it,” said Mackie.

The Cree audiences were absolutely captivated by Mackie as he was inspiring and humorous at the same time.

Mackie also kept reinforcing the idea that struggle is a positive thing since without struggle there is no progress and that anyone who has said that they have not struggled is not being truthful.

At a time when the CSB is struggling to reform their programs and progress positively, this particular message rang true.

Deputy Grand Chief Ashley Iserhoff and Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come were also on hand at the banquet to honour all those whose time at the CSB was ending and who were in attendance that night.

For Iserhoff, who was also there to introduce Mackie, a personal friend, the symposium was an ideal place for everyone to share their stories. As Iserhoff has always been a champion of the youth, the symposium was particularly important.

“When leaders or public people get into office they are always saying that young people are our future. Our young people are our future but for me it is a different idea. The teachers have a huge responsibility in teaching our kids today so that they can use the value in the education system that they have been taught and apply that to our lives,” said Iserhoff.

For Coon Come, the symposium was not just about addressing some of the lingering issues within the CSB but also a mark on the road to show just how far the CSB had come.

“The CSB has come a long way through many growing pains in trying to set up and have a real control over Cree education. They have felt this over the years in going through a development stage of training their teachers, especially the Cree language and Cree cultural teachers, and now to be able to see how far we have come. Yes, we have problems, we have a dropout problem and gang problems, and these are facts. But the fact is that the teachers are coming together to find solutions and move the agenda forward so that schools can be the central part of the community once again, and to empower the parents committees and the school committees the way they were originally intended,” Coon Come said.

Coon Come also honoured those who would be retiring for their many years of service and dedication. He later displayed his admiration for the retirees by posing for pictures with the many who had attended the event and congratulated them on their accomplishments.

To the Nation, Coon Come expressed the following in regards to those individuals:

“To be here and to see some of those teachers who I originally saw when I was involved with the CSB, I was a commissioner for 10 years, to see them now retire, that says a lot. Certainly I think that the Crees, despite the statistics, I think it’s only right to show your appreciation and dedication. These teachers who are retiring, the majority of them are Cree and certainly the ones who gave up a comfortable life down south to come up to our communities and to live with us, telling us their stories and educating our young people. That says a lot about their character and they should be commended for it. The Cree School Board is rightly so doing it.”

As each retiree came up to accept their thanks from the school board and a retirement gift, many words were spoken in their honour.

For the 17 out of the 46 retirees who attended, a speech was made to tell everyone else about their lives and the contributions they had made. Here are some highlights from those speeches, courtesy of Kim Quinn from the CSB:

Chacko Kannikat is from Kerala, India and joined the CSB on August 15, 1989 as a homeroom teacher to Secondary 5 students at the Badabin Eeyou School in Whapmagoostui. He came up intending to teach for six months but stayed for 19 years.

Bessie Blackned is from Old Nemaska and began her career with the CSB as both a substitute teacher and a replacement cleaning staff member in 1983. Many years later, after obtaining her Cree Literacy certificate, Blackned, at the encouragement of her principal, resigned as a janitor to teach Cree language.

Elizabeth Blackned Jolly began her teaching career in 1987 in Waskaganish while in the teacher training program. She finally graduated in 1996 from the Université du Québec à Chicoutimi. She is retiring after 21 years of teaching.

Elizabeth Chikamish was born out on the land in Chisasibi and has taught school since 1968. Though she began teaching in English, she took on teaching Cree in 1993, when it became a language of instruction at the CSB.

Paul Adam hails from Sudbury, Ontario, and started the Electrical Technology program in Chisasibi in 1985. Over the course of his CSB career, Adam has worked as a Pedagogical Counselor and lived in Mistissini, Waswanipi, Waskaganish, Wemindji and Ouje-Bougamau before he retired.

Nydia Nebelsky originally hails from Toronto and began her career with the CSB teaching at the Luke Mettaweskum School in Nemaska. During her time at the CSB, she has worked as an elementary teacher, a special education teacher, an education consultant for various departments and retired after working as the Coordinator of Special Education Services from 2005-2009.

Jo-Anne Beaupart was born in St-Charles, Ontario. She followed her husband Paul Adam to Chisasibi in 1985 and taught for the CSB there.  She transferred several times to follow her husband throughout Eeyou Istchee except for his last stop before retirement in Wemindji. She visited him there weekly and retired from the CSB in 2008.

Lewis Downey hails from Sherbrooke. He was a teacher just as his mother and his grandmother before him. Downey worked for the CSB for 15 years and taught in Chisasibi and Nemaska.

Sophie Gunner worked as a secretary for the CSB for over 18 years. She attended the Sabtuan Continuing Education Centre to train as a secretary and moved around throughout the territory.

Merka Weiss was born to Russian parents who immigrated to Canada and committed her life to becoming a teacher after she had some negative experiences within the education system. She taught for seven years at the Maquatau Eeyou School.

Ernest Weiss came with his wife Merka to Wemindji to teach after teaching at Concordia in the Education Department and after owning an importing business for 25 years. He and Merka are planning on living happily ever after together.

Eugenia Olaru is originally from Romania and obtained her first teaching job in Transylvania. She began working for the CSB as a resource teacher in 1994 and then taught at the Maquatua Eeyou School for 14 years.

Florrie Steven Katapatuk hails from Waskaganish and is the mother of 10 children. She began working for the CSB in 1978 as a kindergarten teacher. She obtained her Bachelor of Teaching in 1994 and her certificate in Cree literacy in 1998. She has retired and is pursuing a more traditional way of life.

Dorothy Nicholls is originally from Rupert’s River Portage and worked for many years in different jobs before becoming a teacher. Nicholls worked for the CSB for over 19 years as a teacher and then as a vice-principal of the elementary sector. Her last two-and-a-half years at the CSB were spent as the Coordinator of School Operations.

Normand Bulteau is originally from Dolbeau, Lac-St-Jean and has taught in Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba. He retired from Voyager Memorial School in Mistissini and is looking to start up his own consulting firm specializing in Native education, special education and social studies.

Eleanor Cowan was born in Montreal and began her teaching career in Paris, France. Cowan held several positions in Montreal working at Dawson College, the Lansdowne Learning Centre, Westmount High School and at the Peter Hall School. Teaching in the north was a dream realized for Cowan who taught at Voyager Memorial School in Mistissini.

Sheryl Gervais was born in Fort Coulonge, Ontario, and worked as a teacher in Pembroke for most of her life before retiring after 30 years. Deciding she wasn’t done with teaching, she took on a position at Badabin Eeyou School in Whapmagoostui in 2004. She taught Secondary 2 there and then became the Special Education Department Head Teacher. She is grateful to the Crees for her many experiences with them.