Elections for the Chairman of the Cree School Board will be taking place in September. So The Nation decided it was time to put the present Chairman on the hot seat of public scrutiny and tell all. This is what we got when we met with him at the CSB’s head office in Mistissini. Luke MacLeod, the present Chairman of the Cree School Board, talks candidly about the CSB’s accomplishments in the past year, relations between teachers, the communities and the CSB, the current Collective Agreement negotiations and the Cree Education Act.

The Nation: It’s been almost a year since you’ve taken office. What do you feel has been some of the accomplishments in the past year?

Luke MacLeod: I would have to say that the most important thing we’ve done this year is the Cree as the Language of Instruction Program. The Council of Commissioners and the Chiefs met back in 1988 and they request that the Council of Commissioners start implementing Cree as the language of instruction. Which is the way it is written in the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement.

We started implementing it and we passed a resolution that says by 1999 every community should have Cree as the language of instruction up to Grade 3. The community of Mistissini will be starting this fall in Grade 1. Next year they’ll proceed to Grade 2 and then to Grade 3 the year after. The other community that’ll be starting this year is Nemaska. Ouje-Bougoumou and Waswanipi will be starting next year so they might actually do it by the year 2000. Basically, they can’t start because of resources. They don’t have the people right now.

But all the other communities have already started. There were two pilot projects, one that started in Waskaganish and the other in Chisasibi. Chisasibi has already gone up to Grade 3. The other communities are up to Grade 2 and some are going into Grade 3 this year. So along the coast, they have gone quite ahead on it.

But to me, that was the most important thing we’ve done. To finally put a schedule on it so that everyone will be following that schedule to implement Cree as the language of instruction to Grade 3. On top of that, we are looking at work we’ll be doing in Grades 4, 5 and 6 in the future. We’ve also stated that Cree language instruction must be taught in all the schools right up to Secondary V.

With Cree as the language of instruction, I can see one problem that you’re probably already aware of. I’ve heard that there have been some complaints from the non-Native members of the community about this sort of thing. What’s your response?

We’ve had about five cases we’ve heard from. It’s mostly Cree School Board employees who have young children who were affected. What happened in the past and in the other communities where we already have Cree as the language of instruction implemented—like in Chisasibi, where it’s our fourth year now— what they usually did was put the children in a grade level where they would not be affected. Special arrangements were made.

More recently, though, the communities believe that cannot be done and there is no special status given to anyone. So everyone has to follow this. What we’ve decided to do is assist those students to acquire the skills to go to those classrooms. We must recognize 4 that there are other languages but also at the same time we are trying to implement our language. We are pushing to have Cree language taught in there. So right now all we are doing is we are going to assist them.

Will you be warning new teachers coming into the communities on this policy?

Yes, we are, and as well we’ve sent out a memo from my office here to all the Cree entities informing them that this is the policy and this is what will be followed so that they can talk to their own employees or future employees whom they hire. We are making sure that everyone is informed of this.

What types of results have you gotten from the program? We’ve heard some good things, that the kids are really motivated and enthusiastic. If they can learn their own language really well, then maybe they will later be able to learn the second one better, too…

That is probably one of the hardest things we’ve had to promote. Many people believe that the children will be held back. They believe their children will not have the skills to continue in whatever language they chose to continue their studies in.

We’ve dispelled that by having a doctor, Emily Faries, do a study for us on all other minority groups or other First Nations where they have started this. The study has shown the students are much better off learning their language first, mastering their language first.

But the most important people who have shown us this is working are the teachers themselves, the people who are working with the children. We have teachers in our system who have been there about 20 years. These are the people who have gone on learn Cree literacy—to be fluent in speaking and writing Cree so that they can teach the Grade 1, 2 and 3 levels. They were former teachers of English or French.

They see the difference and they are the ones who tell us. When we were doing our tours, the teachers when they spoke had tears in their eyes because they realized the difference. They said when they taught 20 children before, they would have 10 of them who would be a problem when they were teaching in English or French. They said, We’ve got a problem; we have to give them special assistance. They can’t learn. They have learning difficulties.

Now that they’re teaching in Cree, sometimes there would be one or even none. Now they realize that they were pushed to teach this and they truly believed that they were teaching. But now they realize that those children just did not understand because they did not have the language. That is the biggest difference and you hear them speak about it all the time. Those who have been teaching in Cree for the past two or three years say it is totally different and it is almost like they were ashamed of what they were forced to do.

How about the teachers in say Grade 4 who are seeing the first students who came through this program?

I think in Chisasibi this is the first year that you’ll be having children going from Grade 3 into Grade 4. There is one thing, though, that we found out right away and this was brought to our attention by principals. English or French was taught to the students as if it was their first language or their mother tongue. We have to change that so it is taught to them as a second language, so we give them assistance along the way. I mean it’s not totally Cree up to Grade 3. At Grade 1, there’s one subject not in Cree, but it really starts happening at Grade 2 that they start learning their second language. Now, it’s going to be taught to them as a second language, not as if they knew it already.

That is something we realized that we have to do. So the curriculum is going to be changing a bit. For instance, if they’re reading a story there’ll be a glossary at the back explaining the meaning of the different words. The teachers will make sure that the students understand what they’re reading instead of treating them as if they already know that.

This is one thing about Cree as the Language of Instruction—we are starting to pinpoint where the problems were and are.

The Nation: Another topic of interest is the feds and provincial government deciding to unilaterally exclude the Crees from discussions on funding for Cree education. What’s the School Board’s response going to be?

We’re going to have a court hearing to deal with that. We’re asking for that because Canada and Quebec have come to an agreement without consulting the Crees at all. Clearly it says in the James Bay Agreement that the Crees must be consulted. The reality is that the Crees are supposed to be part of a tripartite process. The funding in general is under the Crees. That is clear in the Agreement. When Quebec and Canada were meeting, wherever they were meeting, we were trying to get in. I sent out about four or five letters to two or three different ministers trying to at least have a seat at these meetings and we were refused or we were told, “You’ll be notified.”

Eventually we were told they had come to an agreement concerning the outstanding moneys Canada owed to Quebec in regards to Cree education. So in May when everyone was out hunting, they announced they had come to an agreement and made a big press release on this. One of our major concerns is that they already have started to determine guidelines for future funding.

But they never involved the Crees in all this. So we’re going for a judgment on this. We’re saying they broke the JBNQA. This is something we’ll be seeing in court very soon.

I guess another hot topic is that the collective agreement with Cree School Board employees is coming up and there’ll be negotiations for it. I understand through the rumour mill that the union would like to axe the Cree Replacement Policy.

They do?

It’s the rumours we’ve been hearing.

Well, let me put it this way. The Council of Commissioners will never agree to that. The Cree Replacement Policy is in all of our collective agreements and I think every knows why it has to be there. I remember years ago when we were just setting up the School Board, I was a young councillor from Mistissini at that time and that was the concern—that we have Cree control of our education and the only way to have that is to have our own people in there, from teachers all the way to the top level. That is how we will have full control.

So you can understand why it had to be there. We didn’t have qualified people to begin with but now we have more and more people finishing their education. To be able to work in this field, we have to be able to put them in. That’s why it’s there and why it has been from the beginning.

Has there been use of that policy?

More and more we are beginning to use it. As I’ve said, people are finishing their post-secondary education. We’re putting them in there and it’s their right. If you have a qualified Cree teacher coming back to whichever community, walks into the school and shows us that paper and says they want to teach, if they are qualified at that level, you have to put them in. The person with the least tenure who is a non-beneficiary is replaced. That person may move on to another school or be let go. If they’re let go, their name is added to the list for future openings. If they have two or more years, then they are put on the list and we have to let them know as soon as there’s an opening.

How about the problems with replacing some problem teachers because of the collective agreement—teachers involved in sexual misconduct or who have racist attitudes towards their students. How would something like that get in?

Well, first of all, it is very difficult to get all the information on whoever we are hiring. It’s only sometimes when we are informed by some other means that we do find out. Let’s say someone committed a crime. It depends on what the crime is, of course. If they’ve already paid for the crime then there is nothing we can do about that. They’ve paid in society’s eyes and that how the law looks at it. We would be concerned if it was a crime involving young people that could put our students in jeopardy—then that’s different.

There’s only so much information you’re allowed to retrieve. And honestly too, I’ve seen where people are forced to resign because it causes less problems than to outright fire them. Because then you go through a long litigation and any little mistake you make, it’s thrown out of court.

I think it’s been done in the Cree School Board and every other school board does it to. It’s because of the protection that is offered to them through their unions, I guess up to a certain point. Short of someone actually doing a criminal act, an obscene act, something of that nature to the students, we have to keep them in the system. But we are working with our people so they are more skilled at looking after this so that people who might be mistreating their children will be reprimanded right away. If the situation continues, they’ll be suspended. There’s a procedure that has to be followed.

I know what you’re talking about. I have to face this as a school committee member and we felt we never got the support from the Council of the Commissioners. But now that I’ve been a Commissioner for five years, I see what the problem is and it’s a big problem for us. To give you an example, if you look at the Civil Code, which governs everyone who is employed, the protections it contains aren’t made for us. It doesn’t reflect the way Crees see things. It doesn’t consider Cree values. It doesn’t consider Cree customs, but yet this thing is brought into Cree territory, dropped on us and we’re told we have to use it. That’s our biggest problem— we have to use it and we don’t have anything. We have never developed anything involving our customs.

So now you have a community where the School Board is caught in between. The community is saying we have our rights; we have the right to protect our children the way we see fit. And it looks like it’s the CSB that is bringing it in and we are not.

This is something that has to be looked at very closely. It could be detrimental to the School Board, but also to that individual who has come to work in our community. I’ll give you an example. Here we have to place people in houses coming from outside. Some of them with two or three bedrooms are by themselves because they don’t want to live together. Yet, there are Crees living two to three families to a house. And this person wants to be looked at as the same as our people. How can they expect that when they ask for this type of treatment? I don’t know if the union knows this is what it’s doing.

But this is what we see. How can you expect to be looked at the same when you ask to be treated as royalty compared to the other resident s of the community? Then you want the respect of the people and have them come and speak to you about their children.

Will the School Board be looking at some of these things during the negotiations?

There’s one thing that’s happened this year. It’s the first time it’s happened. The collective agreements are being renegotiated and instead of having two or three people speaking on behalf of a group, they’ve made it into a more round-table discussion type. Everybody is allowed their say and this is working much better. Especially our Native employees; people are able to start talking about Cree values to the union representatives, to the teacher representatives, which is much better. So this round of negotiations is going well. The agreement should be in place by December.

The Cree Education Act is another interesting development.

Well, it’s always been there. Since 1978, with the formation of the CSB, we fell under the old Education Act. In fact there was an annex added specifically referring to the Crees and the Inuit. Since then there’s been three changes in the Act and each time the Crees have been approached to adopt the new one. Clearly it’s not in the interest of the Cree School Board to just take the new Act. So we’ve always been governed by the Education Act of 1978 since the CSB was formed.

But the people have always stated that there should be a Cree Education Act. So right now we are going through the consultation process with the people. We’ve already had a group set up for a couple of years who looked at this. We are trying to look at this overall because it has to tie in with the new things that we are doing as well, like Cree as the Language of Instruction. There’s always been the demand for more local control, so that has to be tied into the Cree Education Act as well.

So this year, the consultation process will be happening. But it is one of the most difficult things as very few people know what the Education Act is now, including myself as a matter of fact. All I know is that we are governed by an Education Act and every time we decide something, our legal council lets us know when we have refer to the Act. It’s the same for the other Commissioners as well. But if we create our own act then well all know all about it inside out.

By the end of next fall, we hope to have a draft ready for the government to look at. This will be ongoing. Right now we have our coordinator working on it and two commissioners who are heading it. They will be discussing it at our next meeting and there will be a conference on it.

Will it be a public conference?

Yes, most of the school committees will be invited guests. It’s not going to be huge. Mostly selected people. We’ll be working with local school committees and ask them to send two or three representatives. This will probably be happening before December. That’ll be decided in our Val d’Or meeting this month. I have a meeting with the minister and a lot of these things will be brought to her attention including the Canada-Quebec agreement.