Laurie Ann Georgekish and Joni Saganash have a lot to be proud of these days. Both are back working in their respective home communities of Wemindji and Waswanipi, and both are the first graduates from the Community Health Representative program at the Cégep de l’Abitibi-Témiscamingue.

“When we graduated we were told to brag a little which we didn’t do as there were only two of us graduating,” said Georgekish, laughing. “We were told that we should be very proud of ourselves as we are the first group graduating from this college course as CHRs.”

The others who Georgekish and Saganash began the program with will complete their courses this spring and graduate in June after some of them needed to take a break from the course for personal reasons.

Georgekish said she really enjoyed the program because it she found it to be fun and it wasn’t too far away from home. During the 18 months she spent in the program, the two graduates got to perform three of their four internships within Cree communities to get on-the-job training and familiarize themselves with the kinds of programs and services available through the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay (CBHSSJB).

A few years ago, Georgekish said she was thinking of returning to school but was uncertain what to study when she was asked to do some replacement work as a receptionist at the local clinic. Having to assist in the workshops for the CHRs as part of the job, Georgekish’s eyes were opened to a new career opportunity and just by luck the Cégep in Val-d’Or launched its new CHR program.

“Because I enjoyed doing those workshops with the CHRs I decided to do the training,” said Georgekish.

According to Marc Bertrand, director of the Cégep’s Val-d’Or campus, the new CHR program offers a mix of nursing and social work courses and is tailored to the Cree communities. There are Cree-specific courses on values, culture, communication in Cree and traditional knowledge since a CHR is expected to draw from both traditional and modern medicine when working with clients. A CHR’s role is to serve as a middleperson between clients and health practitioners, such as nurses and doctors, to ensure that the clients comprehend their treatment or medical advice and that the professionals understand what is culturally appropriate for the clients.

“The CHR program is an initiative from the Cree Health Board. They contacted us to ask if we could prepare a program to meet the specific needs of Native communities and northern communities,” said Bertrand.

After researching the specific academic competencies and job requirements of CHRs working within the Cree communities, the Cégep developed a program based on those factors through courses already being offered in their nursing and social work programs.

Once a program of 16 specific competencies that could be learned through the college was established, it was then passed through the institution’s own academic review board before being sent to the Ministry of Education for its stamp of approval, which it readily received.

Currently there are 14 Cree students studying in the program though Bertrand said the CBHSSJB is looking to graduate a total of about 80 students to fill the employment demand within the communities.

Because the program is becoming so popular, Bertrand said a number of other Aboriginal communities, such as the Algonquins of Lac Simon, are thinking of introducing CHRs into their communities and have shown interest in the program.

Having examined other programs across Canada, the new CHR program is the only one of its kind in the entire country, combining the practices and values of both traditional medicine and modern medicine into one course.

As the program is brand new, Bertrand said they are looking to refine the program a bit more before creating new divisions for other communities.

“It is starting to be a real success. Because it is that time of year when we do our recruiting, we have been going around the communities and more and more people asking about it,” said Bertrand.

For those interested in the CHR program, you can contact guidance councilor Émélie Rivard-Boudreau at 819-874-3837, #497 or