The Cree School Board regional education symposium kicked off two days after the federal election on Oct 21-22. And the symposium’s special guest – former Prime Minister Paul Martin – lamented the lack of attention for Aboriginal issues during the long campaign, noting that not one question in five campaign debates addressed First Nations.

That, said Martin, is nothing new. Aboriginal issues have always gotten short shrift in Ottawa.

“I was 50 and a Member of Parliament before I first learned about residential schools,” Martin told a packed Montreal conference room filled with Cree and non-Indigenous teachers and administrators.

“How could that happen in this country?” he asked rhetorically.

Since retiring from politics, Martin has dedicated his charitable work to closing the educational achievement gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians.

The Cree School Board (CSB) is teaming up with the foundation he set up, the Martin Aboriginal Education Initiative, which will be offering a course in Mistissini this year before expanding to other communities. It teaches Aboriginal entrepreneurship by developing financial literacy and communication skills, Martin explained. The course highlights successful Aboriginal business people, and students finish with a real-world business plan.

During his speech, Martin said he was excited to begin working with the Cree and hopes the relationship will grow.

Martin praised the teachers and administrators in the room, calling the CSB a “preeminent school board.”
It was high praise for a school board that reported a 33 per cent graduation rate in 2013-14. But over the two-day conference, numerous administrators, teachers and workshop leaders expressed confidence that the CSB is on track to significantly improve success rates.

The CSB goal is to increase the graduation rate to 50% by 2020. To get there, the CSB is turning to progressive education approaches that draw on cutting-edge neuroscience.

Former Prime Minister Paul Martin, CSB Chairperson Kathleen Wooten, and CSB Deputy Director General address media following conference opening

Former Prime Minister Paul Martin, CSB Chairperson Kathleen Wooten, and CSB Deputy Director General address media following conference opening

Changing the Act

One workshop at the symposium described how the CSB is currently revisiting the 1978 Cree School Board Act with the intention of revising it to better reflect Cree values.

Revising the Act is a priority for Abraham Jolly, the Director General of the Cree School Board.

A residential school survivor, Jolly experienced the system explicitly designed by the Canadian government to “take the Indian” out of the child, where abuse and neglect was rampant.

Jolly believes a revised Cree Educational Act – one with a “Cree essence,” as he put it – would be an important statement of self-determination.

“Even after the residential schools, in some ways we have been subjected to how the government wants us to run our schools. We need to show that we are a people who can govern ourselves,” said Jolly.

Jolly stresses that any new legislation would have to be formally adopted by Quebec’s National Assembly. The working group has been at the task for two years, and Jolly said he expects a framework to be ready by next June.

“It is going to require our Cree leadership and Grand Council to ensure the Act that we want to see is passed by the Assembly,” said Jolly.

New approaches

The theme of the symposium was “Inspired Teaching and Valued Learning,” and many of the workshops exposed teachers to progressive pedagogical approaches. They ranged from how to integrate technology in the classroom, to the importance of “brain breaks” when teaching.

It’s the kind of thinking one might expect to find in the upscale tech-oriented suburbs of California’s Silicon Valley. Yet it is being embraced here, in Eeyou Istchee.

Dr. Alex Thornton ran a workshop on the effects of physical education on health and performance. Physical education, he stressed, is as critical subject for students, one that can have a major impact on students’ health and performance.

The problem, Thorton said, is that most schools think about PE in the wrong way. The majority of classes operate on a “sports model”, where students play sports and the best athletes tend to participate the most. They get all of the benefits while others sit on the sidelines and do not get their heart rate up.

Thornton advocated for a “fitness mode”, which embraces things like circuit training. A fitness model, he said, makes sure all students benefit from the activities. He noted that the Cree are traditionally an extremely athletic people. And he suggested how traditional practices, like long snowshoe hikes in the winter, make for ideal workouts.

“When you think about it, in Cree culture, gym was simply a part of life for young people,” said Thornton.

Thornton said students who receive consistent and smart PE classes perform better in school and are happier. Citing numerous peer-reviewed studies, he noted that engaging in exercise can place people into a “hyper-aroused” state, in which students are “able to learn anything.” He then suggested schools consider organizing their schedule so challenging courses – like Math – fall directly after PE.

In an interview following the conference CSB Deputy Director Serge Bélivea explained how the CSB wants to be a leader in terms of embracing science-based approaches to education.

“Neuroscience in education is just beginning and is promising. And we’re lucky to be part of the early stages in how neuroscience can impact the world of education,” he explained. “We want to be leaders in using this knowledge.”

Pilot Program in Waswanipi

Bélivea revealed to the Nation that Thornton has been hired to work with the elementary and high school in Waswanipi.

Thornton travelled to the community following the conference to work with the school’s PE teachers and administrators and redesign the school’s approach to Physical Education.

The schools, according to Bélivea, will undergo some major changes. Some classrooms will be equipped with standing desks and work-out stations, where students can get their heart rate up while following a lesson. And schedules will be tailored so challenging subjects follow PE.

And finally, results will be tracked. A group of students will be equipped with heart-rate and sleep monitors. “We are trying to better understand the role that sleep, nutrition and physical activity has on students,” explained Bélivea.

There are, of course, many other fundamental issues that need to be addressed in order to improve educational outcomes. One is absenteeism, which ranges between 20% and 40% in CSB schools. Bélivea noted that this year the CSB worked with hockey tournament organizers to better coordinate between the school year and hockey games, which have historically been a significant contributor to absenteeism.

Bélivea also said that some CSB programs like Success For All, a reading program tailored at the individual level for young students, is showing signs of success and may be expanded to other schools.

“It’s not a simple issue. It’s about motivation and learning. It’s about students knowing what’s at the end of this for them. We want to give them hope, to know their learning is meaningful and concrete,” he said.