On June 29 in Val d’Or 50 Crees donned gowns and lined up to receive diplomas from McGill in the Cree Literacy Course. They were part of a group of 84 Crees who graduated this year. The master of ceremonies was Arnold Cheechoo of CBC North. He talked in Cree and this set the tone. It was the first time in McGill history that a graduation ceremony would be conducted primarily in Cree. Beverly Quinn, the vice-chair of the Cree School Board would get up and congratulate the successful students. She would be followed by Elder and teacher Johnny Shecapio. Later student representives from Mistissini, Ouje-Bougoumou, Waswanipi, Nemaska, Eastmain, Waskaganish and Wemindji would get up to speak on behalf of their communities and what they experienced. You could tell that it was a proud moment for all the graduates.
On hand to congratulate the grads were Waswanipi Chief Paul Gull and Mistissini Deputy Chief William MacLeod.
The graduates from Chisasibi and Whapmagoustui had a separate graduation ceremony in Chisasibi.
In the course five Cree students made the Deans list.
An interview with Luke MacLeod, Dean’s Honour Roll and former Chair of the CSB.
The Nation: When did you start the Cree Literacy course?
Luke Macleod: The summer of 1999. It was run over the weekends for a total of 500 hours in the course. Each weekend would consist of25 hours.
What made you decide to take the course?
One of the main reasons was when I was with the Cree School Board there was a push for Cree as a Language of Instruction Program. Back in 95 the Cree School Board decided to fully implement that. I remember back when I first got involved in Cree politics I was in Waskaganish or Chisasibi people talked about how the Cree School Boards would be set up. One of the Elders there said “Don’t ever let it be taken out of our schools because then we will surely die.” So when I got in as a commissioner I always talked about that but it was one of those areas where you talk about it but you can’t do it yourself. That really affected me so my niece Daisy Moar used to always push me. She would say, “When are you going to learn Cree, the written Cree?” So when the opportunity came up in Mistisssini I took it. That’s how I started it.
Do you find it surprising that so many people graduated from the program? I believe there were 84 grads.
Suprising? Not really. I’ve traveled, I even have worked with radio and the CSB and promoting CLIP. People would come up to us and say this was very good. One Elder said to work on the language and everything would fall into place. He said really work on the language first, the culture and that will fall into place. I really do believe there are a lot of people out there who want to learn Cree literacy and realize the importance of learning to read and write it as well.
How does it feel to have made the Dean’s honour list?
Well, first of all, I didn’t understand what it was at the beginning. My experience with college was back in the 70s and to be truthful I wasn’t really there for school. I was more involved in the other activities in college than the actual studies. To realize that I could do this that well has been great. When I think back on how many When you say there are only three languages that are viable yet you’re helping the Mi’kmaq. Do you see yourself as helping to preserve and these other languages?
times I used to rewrite everything in English in the radio station so I could broadcast it in the Cree language somehow this has paid off as well. The course was made in a way that it was more than just learning to read and write in Cree, we also had the Cree culture in there as well. There were different skills that we were taught that I had some knowledge of before I went into the course. For example, the way to interview someone and how to translate, so I had some advantages there over the other students. It was a great honour though to make the Dean’s list.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
As I said in my presentation on behalf of the people who graduated from Mistissini, I stated how important it was for me personally to have gone through this in that I was able to work with my granddaughter and her schoolwork. We played a game where 1 would write the first character and she would have to make a word with it. We kept doing that and had a lot of fun doing that. That was really great to be able to do that with my granddaughter, who just entered Grade One this year.
Also during Cree culture I learnt to make a crooked knife all by myself. That includes the bending and the tempering of the blade. Johnny Shecapio taught me that. I will always remember my grandfather when he used to have his tools out and his crooked knife would be there beside him. I would watch him work. I know that he must have had some of his tools for years because his crooked knife blades would be very small, very thin. He would never let me touch those ones. He would let me touch one of the larger ones. I guess this is so I wouldn’t break the blade on him. I was always fascinated by that and that it was something special for my grandfather. When I made my own crooked knife it was really special for me. That’s how I view learning the Cree language — it’s very special. Even though Johnny taught me I know he learnt from somebody else. That’s been passed down and now it’s reached me. Now it’s my responsibility to pass it on and to be able to teach somebody else how to make that knife and it’s the same thing with the Cree language. I don’t want to see it end up in a museum. I want to see it stay alive and that is only going to happen by using it all the time. Edgweda.
An Interview with Donna-Lee Smith of the Office of First Nations and Inuit Education,
Faculty of Education at McGill.
The Nation: I know most of the graduation ceremonies are done in Montreal, did you find it different to have the graduation in Val d’Or?
Donna-Lee Smith: I loved it. Four years ago we had the first cohort graduate in the Cree literacy program. There weren’t as many people so they came down. There were about 48 at the time. It was all very lovely. We had the graduation dinner in the faculty club. It was wonderful but not one word of Cree.
This graduation in Val d’Or was beautiful and everything was in Cree. To me it makes more sense since it is a Cree literacy course.
How long have you been offering this course and is this the largest graduating class?
I believe since 1992 or 93.1 wasn’t there at the beginning. We’ve only had two graduating classes and the first one was only available to teachers. With the second cohort we opened up to anyone in the community so we got administrators, daycare workers, teachers, etc. As a result it was a much larger group.
Now you had five people graduate on the dean’s honour list. What kind of distinction is that?
It means that their GPA (grade point average) was the highest in all of McGill University. It wasn’t just the Cree Literacy Program, they were amoung the top levels of McGill.
What do you feel when you do these types of courses?
I feel very proud to be connected with the program. I feel we are doing something that is very important for First Nations people in Canada. Out of the dozens and dozens of languages that used to exist there are three that are viable now and one of them is Cree. This program works very hard to keep the language viable.
Whereas another program we’ve started in Cape Britain in Wagmatmacook, that language, Mi’kmaq is very much at risk.
Cree, Inuit and Ojibway are the three viable languages. Other languages are at risk and some have already died out completely.
Is saving these other languages something that McGill is looking at?
The way it works is the communities have to contact us. We don’t go out and solicit First Nations. We wait for people to get in touch with us. Currently we may start a initiative in Kahnawake. The Cree in Ontario are interested as well. The Cree in Ontario is very preliminary.
Is this mainly teaching syllabics or is there more involved?
With the Cree and the Mi’kmaq, to get into the program you have to be fluent in the language. Primarily it was so the participants in the program could go into the schools and teach Cree as a language of instruction. So you would have the little kids coming into pre-K and Kindergarden and be taught in Cree.
In a sense you are helping to wipe out the stigma of the assimulation programs of the residential schools?
Well, yes, very much so. There should be a very smooth transition between home and school. If the kids are speaking Cree at home and they go into school and they speak Cree there then it’s the smooth transition I was talking about. It doesn’t matter if math is taught in Greek, Chinese, English or Cree it is the same. A math concept is always the same so the kids are getting the same foundation and base in terms of what they need but in their own language. We’re looking at maintaining the culture and maintaining self-esteem.
Any last words?
Mary Bear is my partner in the Cree Literacy Program. She has worked tremendously hard over the years. She organizes everything. She does 99 per cent of the work and down here we do 1 per cent. She finds the teachers, does the organizing of the dates and set up and organizes everything for the nine communities.
Charlette MacLeod looks after the three communities of Mistissini, O.J. and Waswanipi.
Debbie (House-Cox) looks after Whapmagoustui, Chisasibi and Wemindji. Mary looks after Eastmain, Nemaska and Waskaganish. Mary oversees everything. I don’t think the program would have been as successful without her hard work. So I think we have to give her credit for that.
Where do you go from here?
We’re having a final course in the fall to allow some people to catch up. In the winter we’re going to have a third cohort and again we’re going back to people who are in education. This was too big a cohort and trying to meet everyones’ needs when they are so diverse was difficult. For example, you have teachers looking at pulling together a curriculum for their classroom and you have homemakers in the same group then the needs are quite different. So this new one will be for people in the educational sector and we’ll be setting up another one in Adult Education for other people in the community so we can meet everyone’s needs.