The Cree School Board is working on a Cree

Education Act that would give local communities, Elders and the Cree Nation control over our schools.

The Cree Education Act will bring many changes to the communities. One of them is that local schools will be put under the authority of local communities. “It will be a very powerful tool for the Cree Nation” says Alan Happyjack.

Happyjack is the School Commissioner for Waswanipi and co-chair of the Cree Education Act Commission. The Nation recently had the opportunity to talk to Happyjack and Paul Gull, coordinator of the Commission, which is responsible for drafting the Cree Education Act. Mabel Herodier, chair for the Commission, was regrettably unavailable at press time.

Happyjack said they are looking at making people at the local level the “real controllers.” He expects a two-year transition period to put the education system in the communities under full Cree control. Consultations within the communities are ongoing and the Cree School Board is inviting everyone’s suggestions. A conference will be held early next year to finalize the Cree Education Act. After this, the Quebec government has agreed to pass the Act through the National Assembly and make it law.

The Cree Education Act talks about allowing local people to set classroom time for each subject and procedures for student promotion and evaluation. Another important change would be the terms of the commissioners and chairperson of the Cree School Board. The Act would extend current one-year terms to three years.

Still to be decided is how the school board’s chairperson would be appointed. Three possibilities are being proposed: 1) keeping the present system where the commissioners nominate one of their own, 2) having the GCCQ/CRA appoint the chairperson and 3) having a Cree Nation-wide general election for the position.

The options are there to begin a discussion on what people want to do with the top position of the school board, said Paul Gull. Gull explained that the longer terms are needed because there is only so much that a person can do in a year. He said there is a constant danger that projects could be affected with such a rapid turn-around of the Board’s elected leadership.

During 1996-97, the Cree School Board introduced the concept of the Cree Education Act to the public and visited the communities with a preliminary draft. Happyjack said the visits to the communities led to a positive exchange of ideas. The opinions expressed by people proved to be of benefit in drafting the latest version of the Act. The school board was seen as having a central role in preserving and strengthening the Cree language, culture and values. People talked about the involvement of Elders, students, parents and local authorities in the schools. Crees were interested in bringing the full control of education home to the communities.

“It was very favourable reaction from the people,” said Happyjack. Added Gull: “This is a working document and we want to give people the opportunity to comment on the document. In our pamphlet we mention that the door is still open to talking about it.”

The Quebec Education Ministry hasn’t seen the Cree Education Act document yet. The school board says it wants Cree people to look at the document and see if they agree, and this is why the Education Dept, hasn’t received a document yet. Gull and Happyjack said the Cree people should be the ones to finalize anything that the Education Dept, looks at.

At the moment, the Cree education system is ruled by the outdated 1978 Quebec Education Act, which is not even consistent with the provisions guaranteed by the JBNQA. Since 1978, the Quebec Act has gone through two major reforms, but Crees opted out of these reforms because of uncertain implications on Cree rights.

The 1978 Education Act, though, does contain provisions for a Cree/Naskapi/Inuit Education Act. Extending this philosophy further, Gull says that the Crees should have their own Education Act.

Even though the Cree Education Act would put Cree education back in Cree hands, the Commission says there will be some affiliation with the Education Ministry so there would be recognition of Cree school standards and Cree students would be accepted without prejudice at CEGEPs, colleges and universities.

But Gull remarked, “In a radical sense, we can say why do we need to be recognized by them? Why can’t we recognize our own? We are Crees and we are having this as a nation and everyone should recognize this.” As a parallel, he pointed to the example of Mohawk Survival School.

Gull is sure that recognition could be worked out. He says any affiliation with the Education Ministry would probably be financial. The school board and Cree education would still be accountable to the people. Happyjack says he expects that any Cree student would be recognized at any school across Canada.

Happyjack expects the Cree Education Act will have far-reaching effects. “There’ll be an opportunity of addressing inside and outside the community and off-reserve issues,” he said. “All those considerations will be incorporated into the Education Act. They will be concerns with respect to, for example, the application of the 10-year clause. Through this Act a restriction may eventually be eliminated.”

Happyjack expects the Cree Education Act will really take off after the year 2000. That is when we will really see the Act’s significance. He feels that this is the time for Crees to define what we think education is. It is a unique opportunity for everyone. He looks at it being a model that the Crees could extend to “our neighbouring Crees in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatawan and Alberta.” He sees this as a long-term vision.

In the Cree Education Act pamphlet being put out by the school board, one issue stands out. That Cree as a Language of Instruction wasn’t recognized under the present system. Paul Gull said this was one of the reasons why Crees needed a Cree Education Act to formally recognize the changes that have occurred in the Cree world in the last 20 years.

He would like to see the JBNQA and the Act strengthen a right. Presently, the Education Dept, does recognize Cree as a Language of Instruction and gives a course credit, but Gull said he would like to have an updated Education Act to “reflect that reality.”

The school board has evolved and so must the rules that govern it, asserted Gull. “There has to be some give and take given the reality of what we are going through. If you take the required classroom time in each subject, we end up with only one hour a week for Cree culture classes,” said Gull, referring to the situation in one community. He said this is just one example of why things needed to be updated.

Happyjack said there would be other important elements that the Act would address. He talked about the “Cree education of long ago,” traditional educaton, programs based on the land and traditional pursuits and activities. He talked about going beyond Category II lands and said the school board has done this in the past through the post-secondary program.

Under the draft version of the Act, schools would consult with Elders’ Councils on some education matters. Gull pointed out that Elders have been consulted at the local level in the past on Cree issues. At conferences and other meetings, it seems they are hearing more and more that Elders have to be involved in the education system relating to traditional-pursuits education. Gull said it will be up to people at the local level to decide whether they will go with the Council of Elders or individual Elders at the local levels.

Another issue is the suggested compulsory school attendance of Cree students between the ages of 6 to 16 years. The Act would allow Cree youth to be absent for six weeks to go into the bush and it would allow home schooling. At present, the JBNQA is unclear as to the Cree right to take their kids out of school and keep them in the bush. Happyjack says we now have an opportunity to clarify this right. In general, Happyjack said, the JBNQA only deals with a minimum of principles on Cree education.

In 1978, Ouje-Bougoumou didn’t exist and isn’t covered in the same manner as the rest of the Cree Nation. The new Act would see Ouje-Bougoumou formally integrated into the Cree School Board. Happyjack says this same situation is being felt by other Crees. The Cree School Board has been approached by the Senneterre Crees, La Sarre and Amos Crees.

“Those Crees are still benificiaries in the JBNQA and they have been living outside the community for so many years,” he said. “We have to address their concerns and issues.”

This is one of the issues that Happyjack says we have to be able to address. Senneterre has a Cree population of 200 to 300, La Sarre and Amos Crees number around 300 to 500, according to Happyjack. He says this sizable population is beginning to organize to voice its concerns. Each has a spokesperson and negotiator that may come looking at the school board to provide school services.

Happyjack expects the Senneterre, La Sarre and Amos Crees will be coming to the other entities to clarify their status within the Cree Nation. He says the Cree Health Board, Income Security Programs and the CTA come to mind easily. The school board has already been approached regarding this issue in the past two years.

“The Cree School Board is making headway to working with those groups in order to work out the details, budgets and in some cases agreements. They have to be fully recognized as well,” said Happyjack. He looks at the full recognition happening some time in the future involving a process similar to O.J.’s.

Happyjack feels that the Cree Education Act will expand on the basics to greater heights. Next year the school board will celebrate its 20-year anniversary, and in the past two decades the Crees have learned from experience. Happyjack and Gull see the laws that presently govern Cree education as inconsistent and incompatible with Cree realities. The laws also do not work at the level envisioned by the JBNQA. They see the Cree Education Act as a starting point and say the school board isn’t alone in seeking changes. Other Cree entities are going through the same types of exercises.

“From my point of view, we see this process of the Cree Education Act as the starting point. It’s a new beginning of a much greater mandate ahead of us,” says Happyjack.

“We’ve always considered the Cree Education Act to be one component of a much greater Cree law and Nation. I think education has always been the primary priority and importance for Crees. It’s an opportunity for the Cree Nation to become involved in the process from all leadership, from the local level, regional level and to an extent at the national level. It’s a one-time opportunity to carry out this mandate and ensure that everyone can voice their concerns and provide input.”