Since outgoing Cree School Board Chairman Gordon Blackned resigned from his position after being elected Chief of Waskaganish this past summer, the question being asked throughout the communities has been: who will serve out the remaining year of his term?

This is why Crees will be heading back to the polls on October 12 for advance polls and on October 19 for the election of a new Chairperson to head up the Cree School Board (CSB).

In light of this, the Nation got in touch with the three candidates – Kenny Blacksmith, Kathleen J. Wooten and Allan J. Happyjack – to see why they feel that they are the best candidates to fill Blackned’s shoes for the remainder of his term. All three have had a lengthy history with the CSB.

Kenny Blacksmith

After suffering a heart attack just weeks ago, Kenny Blacksmith was happy to confirm from his hospital bed that he indeed was still in the running and feeling in fine form.

“I don’t know what caused the heart attack as they didn’t find any clogs in my arteries. It could be that I am still so in love with my wife that when I look at her I just get excited,” Blacksmith said jokingly.

But on a more serious note, Blacksmith said he was throwing his hat into the ring because of his current concern for the CSB.

“People have forgotten that the principle of Cree education is a Cree right and nowadays it has become more of a policy issue. I find this difficult since over time the CSB has lost its sensitivity and understanding to the fact that every community is different. Every community has specific needs for progress to happen,” said Blacksmith.

According to Blacksmith, his experience with the CSB since the 1980s puts him in a good position in terms of understanding the development of Cree education. Blacksmith said he was a school commissioner from 1988-1990 and then again from 2000-2005 and he also served as President of the CSB 1988-1992.

Looking at the CSB’s current state of affairs, particularly when it comes to school success rates, Blacksmith believes that the CSB is facing a crisis that needs a swift resolution. He has no desire to make his position political but sees himself as the man for the job because of how well he was able to deal with the situation the last time the CSB was in crisis in 1988.

At the time the Quebec government was about to get trusteeship over the CSB and Blacksmith was part of those negotiations over a three-month period with the Ministry of Education.

“The council of commissioners back then was very firm about the rights and issues and we fought hard and won a battle to get all of the money we could ever need,” said Blacksmith.

Looking at the current crisis, Blacksmith said that with a success rate hovering around 8.6%, these are numbers that should be snapping the CSB back into being more proactive like they were in 1988. He believes it is high time to develop a vision that will allow the CSB to move forward.

His plan as School Chair would be to look at what students need in terms of school readiness and address them on a per community basis as each school is facing different problems. There is one-size-fits-all solution and decentralizing some of the regional services may be the best way to tackle the issues.

Blacksmith said his plan would also include doubling the amount of commissioners’ meetings as well as having frequent meetings with individual Chiefs and Councils so that each community’s needs are understood and met.

“It will be a hard deed to address the issues that are before us, but I know that I can do it. I know that we can even achieve greater progress with the crisis that we are in because I love our people and I care for the children,” said Blacksmith.

Kathleen Wooten

Having been involved in both education and then politics over the last 30 years, Kathleen Wooten feels she has the best shot at becoming the CSB Chairperson because of her experience on the job and through her education.

Wooten first appeared on the education scene in Mistissini in the early 1980s when she began the teacher-training program and started working as a substitute teacher. Wanting to further her own education, Wooten registered at McGill University in 1982 and graduated with a Bachelor of Education in 1985. She returned to McGill in 1999 to complete a Master’s degree in Educational Leadership.

In terms of working in the field of education, outside of her stint as Deputy Chief of Mistissini from 2002-2010, Wooten said she has worked for the CSB in various capacities since 1989, holding positions as a teacher, instructor and then a school commissioner for Mistissini. Last year she also served as Vice-Chair of the CSB.

It is because of her experience, particularly as a commissioner and as Vice-Chair that Wooten feels she is knows the problems the schools and the CSB have been facing.

“I feel that our focus hasn’t been on the students, we have worked around them. I believe that this is one of the reasons why our students aren’t succeeding in school, because we have not made them a priority.

“I also feel that people have forgotten why the CSB exists. The reason for its existence is to educate and teach children, to give them the knowledge and skills that they need in life. Our focus has been on making sure that the infrastructure is in place and now we need to turn our focus to what happens in the classroom and to make sure that the children are learning to read and write,” said Wooten.

Wooten said as Chair she would demand the necessary information that shows which programs are working and which aren’t because she feels that administrators at the top need evidence to be able to act.

Wooten said she feels that her background, education and experience makes her the best candidate for the job. Having received an education outside of the communities has also given Wooten a perspective that she believes would help her as Chair.

“I don’t have all of the answers but I feel that there needs to be leadership in terms of setting a direction for where the CSB needs to go. I want to make sure that the students are the focus of education and that they are the priority. We need to make sure that the schools have all of the resources they need in order to be able to deliver the education to the students,” said Wooten.

Allan J. Happyjack

Having been there in the beginning when the CSB was set up is what Allen J. Happyjack believes gives him the edge to be the next School Chair.

Happyjack began his career with the CSB in 1980, after being handpicked by then Chairman Billy Diamond to work alongside him.

“I began working with the CSB in March 1980. Then in October 1981, I was successfully interviewed for the position of Director General of the Cree School Board, and I was given the honour fill that position from until March 1989,” said Happyjack.

Since that time, Happyjack has held the position of Chief of Waswanipi from 1990-93 and then served as school commissioner for his community twice: 1994-2005 and 2008-2011. He has also served as Vice-Chairman of the CSB, giving him the necessary experience for the job.

As for who would make a better candidate to fill Blackned’s shoes, Happyjack said this is something best decided by the Cree people when they exercise their right to vote.

Happyjack however did add, “I am a qualified and good candidate to act on behalf of the youth and the students of Eeyou Istchee. I would be deeply honoured to continue the work and mandate of Gordon Blackned as Chairman for the next 10 months.”