The educational system in Mistissini – and by extension the Cree Nation – is in trouble. So deep, according to some, that it is only a matter of time before there is a major crisis. And it is not just the curriculum and the high absenteeism that is a concern. Racism adds to the mix of an overall feeling of helplessness experienced by the students.

The Mistissini Student Council filed a complaint with the Quebec Human Rights in 2004 because of alleged extreme racist attitudes of some teachers at the high school. Coupled with the lack of support at home for many students, it may be one reason that Mistissini’s high school graduates are ill prepared for CEGEP. the former principal at Mistissini’s Voyageur Memorial School, launched an investigation into why graduation rates were so low in Mistissini and what could be done about it.

His findings were frightening.

He told the Nation about a lack of solid support for the kids who were not getting the individualized attention they needed and were falling through the cracks.

“When I came here, the school was not working,” Bellemare said from his new office as Director General of the Socrates Elementary School in Montreal.

Only two students graduated the year he arrived in Mistissini. “That was unacceptable,” he said.

Mere months after he was hired in Mistissini, Bellemare went on a mission to fix the school from the bottom up. He implemented individualized instruction and started to pay more attention to the students’ needs.

“In Native communities, most of the teachers are non-natives, so their philosophy of education, their style of teaching, their concept of school organization is the one that we have down south. You come in and you have to mold yourself so you can work in it,” he said.

“But when they arrive up north they have what I call a cultural shock and instead of adapting their mentality, their concept to the living people that are there, to the culture that is there, they try to impose it because they don’t know otherwise.”

Bellemare said his team individualized everything, not just the teaching but also the structure of the class.

“For example, we have a high rate of pregnancy at the high school so when a girl had to leave for pregnancy we would give her the work to be done,” said Bellemare. “The teacher would keep contact with that person at home. We would get the homework back and make corrections.”

Likewise, if a student left school temporarily to go hunting in the bush the school would create a personal program. And if a student had difficulty in math, for example, his teacher would organize a remake exam at the proper time for that person.

“Everything was individualized for each case,” Bellemare said.

He also hired researcher Lucie Lapointe from the Université de Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue to identify problems and solutions for the elementary school. His goal was to fix the problem at the grassroots level and in five to 10 years, he hoped to fix the overall malaise at Voyageur.

Under Bellemare’s reforms, high school graduation rates shot up.

“Mistissini became a sort of experimental lab where we really implemented new ways of doing things with the students,” he said. “That had an impact on the graduation rate. It went from two in 2002 to six the next year, then it went up to 21, then there were 27.”

Summer school students, he noted, used to have to travel to Chisasibi, at least a 10-hour drive away. His solution was to secure two teachers and hold summer school locally so students could make another attempt at their failed courses.

His biggest achievement while in Mistissini, however, was a pilot project that started four years ago, thanks to Lapointe’s findings.

The pre-K experiment

Kids as young as four can now attend school full time in a highly successful program that is half French and half Cree. A year later the school added the English/Cree equivalent due to high demand from the parents.

“For the first days, all teachers’ work at introducing the children to the idea of routine as far as being organized and responsible for getting their own outdoor clothes and shoes on and off, and lining up for the bus, and making a smooth transition between activities,” said pre-K English teacher Linda Collier.

“Learning to focus on the task at hand and following through on it and learning the give and take and socialization skills of working together is a big part of their first school experience.”

After lunch, the Cree pre-K teacher teaches the children in Cree for the rest of the afternoon. The kids who started the pilot project four years ago will continue to learn this way throughout their elementary years.

“A child needs to master a minimum of 80 per cent of the oral language in their mother tongue or in a second language,” said Bellemare. “They were scoring 81 per cent in Cree and 84 per cent in French,” he said. The numbers were similar in the English sector.

This program is seen as a long-term solution to improve graduation rates and the literacy skills of Mistissini’s youth. And with over 60 per cent of the community’s population of 3,400 under 25, it’s about time.

Under his reign, vandalism, which cost the school thousands of dollars annually, went down considerably. He estimated that the cost of damage done to the school in his first year was more than $50,000.

It got so bad that the band council held a three-day workshop on vandalism to try to educate more people about it. The students seemed to get the message. By his last year, he said, there was only one broken window.

Absenteeism continued to plague the high school even after Bellemare arrived, however. He estimated that only 60 of 270 students attended full time.

He showed the Nation a chart illustrating the number of students in Grade 6 to Secondary 5 from 1997-1998 until 2001-2002. A large amount of students were bunching up in Secondary one and staying there: 92 in 1998, 94 in 1999, and 97 in 2002.

The maximum number of students in the other grades, meanwhile, was 72 – in Secondary 2 for the 2000-2001 school year.

The Secondary 5 statistics really showed the chinks in the armor. From a high of 20 in the first year of the chart, to low numbers of 7, 15, 8 and 3, the year before Bellemare arrived. Few of these students would actually graduate.

Letters sent to the Cree School Board for funding to investigate the problem went unanswered. It was the school’s own budget, to the tune of $60,000, that enabled Lapointe to come in and nail down the problem.

With the low graduation rate, Bellemare feared, Mistissini was nearing a crisis of epic proportions.

“Secondary 5 is not a diploma that gives you specialization,” he said. “It’s a basic diploma that opens the door to techniques or to other courses.”

“If you don’t do things to make sure the native people get that basic, you’re closing the doors to even little jobs that request Secondary five. And you’re closing doors to higher degrees. To say that that is normal, is like saying the Native youth are not capable to learn the basic subjects.”

Some teachers say this reality is not because of the way they teach, he added but because it’s traditionally not in Native culture to succeed academically or they don’t have discipline. “Teachers find reasons to justify their low rates,” Bellemare said.

Eventually Bellemare jumped ship to the Socrates School in Montreal after he received a letter of reprimand from the Cree School Board in response to an emergency letter Bellemare sent to Indian Affairs, requesting help in the looming education crisis. He was told to watch himself; his actions were raising the ire of the CSB.

A second letter was sent to Bellemare last year, this time suspending him for three weeks. He had kicked the school supervisor out of his school for criticizing the new reform.

Bellemare finished the year and started the New Year to make sure everything was going smoothly. He resigned soon after.

“I changed the school regulations, I changed a lot of things,” he said. “I thought I had the Cree School Board on my side because I was telling myself, with this, they must not be very happy with the result of their system. If I do better, they will probably back me up,” said Bellemare.

“It’s not the teachers that were against me or their union who tried to stop my reform, it’s the fact that the Cree School Board, even though I had good results, were doing everything to shut us down, to stop us.”

He said that his reform took the good things the CSB had going and made a few changes for the benefit of the students.

“I had the support of the school committee, which, in my idea, are the real representatives of the communities,” he said. “It’s their children that are there. So, as long as I had them and their support, I knew I could do everything. I didn’t want to defy the school board but by not applying their little rules I was put on a black list.”

Academic racism

A teacher who wished to remain nameless confirmed multiple instances of racist teachers at Voyageur Memorial that made her sick to her stomach.

“I think some teachers in there have racist attitudes,” said the teacher, who we will call Julie. “I’ve heard comments like these students are stupid and they cannot learn. That kind of attitude by so-called educators is very wrong. When you go into that classroom with that kind of attitude, children can usually sense it right away. Young people are very perceptive with how adults behave.”

The attitude points to a bigger problem than just at the school, she said.

“I think it was racism and outright disrespect towards Cree culture in general. Things like, ‘They don’t pay taxes; they get a free education.’ Little comments like that,” said Julie.

She referred to all the racism and gossiping at the school as a “cesspool.” “I was not accustomed to such ignorant remarks about people. If I went to work in China or India, I’d try my best to respect the culture there.”

She also has trouble with the curriculum and the way it’s taught.

“There’s really no curriculum and it’s very hard to work without one,” she said. “They tell you to teach math and whatever else, but there’s no curriculum guide to follow. You make things up as you go along. Sometimes you have to fabricate marks.”

She recounted being given a course to teach in the middle of February.

“When the marking system came along, I said I cannot give marks for these students because I didn’t know I was supposed to teach this class. I got reprimanded for it. They told me, ‘Give them marks, no matter what.’ It was in the middle of a semester. Usually you’re given your workload in August, when school starts, not in the middle of a year.”

The report on the racism complaint launched by the student council in 2004 still has not been released. “There will be a report issued on the results of those consultations and probably with recommendations before Christmas,” said Quebec Human Rights Commission spokesperson Robert Sylvestre.

“The allegations addressed the adaptation of programs to the realities faced by young Natives,” Sylvestre observed. “Also, major deficiencies in the way the language of instruction is taught and complaints about the behaviour of some teachers. The questions that have arisen were numerous and complex. The Human Rights Commission decided that best way to look into the matter was probably not going through an investigation.”

Instead of launching a formal investigation, the commission decided to hold a community consultation. That was held from November 2005 until January 2006. The Commission met with 400 people during that time, Sylvestre noted.

Kim Quinn, a local teacher at Voyageur Memorial has been put in the newly created position of Master Teacher. Last year, she attended Harvard to complete her Masters in Education. Her job is to help to fix the holes in Mistissini’s education system and give support to other teachers.

“Some parents say there are holes in the students’ instruction and they’re not up to par,” she said. “Part of my role is to see why that is. I also work with the teachers to support the current Cree language program and to offer suggestions to what I studied this year in language and literacy and help them implement some of the methods I learned.”

Quinn hasn’t seen racism first hand at Voyageur, but she has heard others talk about it.

“I’ve heard some of that [racism] happens,” she said. “I’ve heard through non-native teachers who spoke to other non-native teachers that they heard negative remarks about our kids or stereotyping of our kids. These teachers were shocked at what they were hearing. I know it exists but I haven’t seen it myself. I’d be really sad to see it because our kids really don’t need their confidence shot anymore.”

Quinn said that a teacher’s frustration might come from certain students’ lackadaisical attitudes towards school. In turn, the students act out because they are not getting the support they need at home.

Language is a major factor in the poor academic achievement of students, she noted. The answer is to make sure they master one language and then go from there.

“The kids mix Cree in with English and I don’t feel that the kids are becoming fully proficient in any language. That impairs their learning as well. They haven’t mastered a single language and from what the studies have shown is that the single most important thing is that students have a strong foundation in one language. If they master it, they gain more self-esteem and they gain skills in a second language at a faster rate,” she said.

The Christian alternative

Some parents were so distressed at the educational reality in the community that they went ahead and started a new school.

The Dabwetamun Academy is a Christian private school that promises a healthy dose of Cree culture integrated into a religious-based academic program called Accelerated Christian Education, or ACE.

They started class this fall and are billing themselves as an alternative for parents who are fed up with their children’s lack of opportunities at the Voyageur Memorial School.

The Academy is not funded by the Cree School Board, but relies on parents to keep it going.

Parents pay $350 per month for 12 months of their child’s education, a first for this level of schooling in Eeyou Istchee.

“You don’t have to be Christian to attend, but you should agree with the principles and the fact that we read scripture and pray with the kids,” said ACE Administrator Kathy Lemmert. “If they don’t agree with that they will have a problem with the school.

Lemmert and her husband Steve, both non-natives, have been teaching at various schools in the North and preaching the word of God for many years. At one time, they even had their daughter Stephanie, who is now 18, enrolled as a youngster to learn Cree. They are a part of the community.

She talked about a time when the family was packing up and getting ready to leave. Her husband Steve had finished out his year as teacher at Voyageur and was not offered a renewal.

Community members asked them to attend a meeting before they left and to their surprise, the idea of a private Christian school was sprung on them.

“When we lived in Waskaganish about 15 years ago, people talked about it then,” said Lemmert, who added that the idea intrigued her and her husband enough to stay.

Steve’s role is as a supervisor, which is the equivalent to a teacher. His job is to walk around the class to help the students when they need it.

The kids are separated into two classrooms. The first one, for children aged six to nine, is called the ABC program. Overseeing the class are two supervisors for the 11 students in the classroom.

The rest of the students are aged 10 to 17. Within both classrooms, students have a separate workstation that has “blinders” on the side so they can concentrate on their tasks at hand. Individuality, not peer pressure and competition, is stressed.

“The curriculum is the teacher, $50 million went into developing this program,” said Lemmert. “It’s standardized and the instructions are easy for the children to comprehend and do their own material.

“It’s a pace system,” she continued. “In a public system you have a class of 30 kids and one teacher at the front. Those students are all at different levels. Often what happens is the kids at higher levels are frustrated because they’re sitting there and not being challenged. Then you have ones that are not getting it and are just shoved through from grade to grade. Then the kids get to the end of the year and they find out if they failed or passed. If they failed, it’s a terrible stigma on a child.”

The pace system goes by levels rather than conventional grades, Lemmert explained.

“We don’t stress the grades to the child, we stress the goals and the goal setting. Every child has been diagnostically tested and placed at their level, where they can achieve. When they finish a pace, which is about 35 pages, they have several check ups within the book. They mark themselves and when they get to the end, they do a self-test. If they do well, we know that they’ve mastered the material in the pace and they’re ready to take the pace test. If they do not do well on the pace test, if they get below 80 per cent, they redo that pace, not a whole year,” she said.

Each pace takes two to four weeks to complete. Each subject has 12 paces per level, which consists of the usual core subjects of Math, English, Social Studies, Science along with Word Building, Literature and Creative Writing and Bible studies. Secondary 4 and 5 are able to choose electives as well.

“They’re small, bite-sized, achievable goals so the child is always moving forward and not failing,” Lemmert stressed. “Even if they do not master a certain pace, they go back and do it. It’s impossible to fail a year.”

There are 7,500 schools in 130 countries using the ACE program. Lemmert also told the Nation that anyone could be a teacher within this unique system, which has been around for 50 years. A teacher doesn’t have to be certified to be able to tutor in the classroom under the unique learn-as-you-go system.

“We can train people from this community on the job. We have one teacher who is teaching the ABC Group, and she is also finishing up her math from her last year of high school. In the high school it’s a little different. (One of the teachers) Edna Voyageur is planning on enrolling in her master’s degree program while she’s at the school. So people can train and can get their education,” she said.

The hardest part at this point is the lack of financial aid from the Cree School Board. Because it is not an accredited school and is not recognized in Quebec, the CSB will not dole out monies to help unless the province changes its view of the school. Quebec is the only province in Canada that does not recognize ACE schools.

Lemmert said that the integration of faith and culture are a perfect match for Mistissini’s heavily religious population.

At the beginning of the school day, Elders open with Cree prayers for 20 minutes. The school also has a 15-minute period during the week called the healing circle that the Elders are involved in, as well. Other Cree-language activities include making snowshoes and sewing.

“We see the culture integrated and also the belief in God,” said Lemmert. “Anywhere I go in the North, I have a hard time finding people who believe we came from monkeys. It’s a natural thing with Cree people to believe in God.”

Lemmert said that the curriculum is recognized at many colleges, despite the Quebec Education Ministry’s lack of recognition.

“Colleges don’t accept students on the basis of whether they came from an MEQ school or an ACE school, they accept them on the basis of academics,” she said.

“Statistics have proven that these kids do better and are better prepared for college than kids coming out of the public system. MEQ has tested this program and they’ve found it to have a 15% higher academic content,” said Lemmert.

There are 60 character traits taught throughout the year. These traits include honesty, diligence and respect and are taken from scriptural values, mainly from the life of Christ.

There is also a merit/demerit system to encourage the kids to behave. Coming to school on time for a week, for example, will earn a student the chance to bring his or her Ipod into school, so long as the music doesn’t conflict with the school’s values.

There is also a merit store, where students can use their merit dollars to buy stickers or other goodies. Merit dollars are earned through helping others, finishing tasks and good overall behaviour.

Demerit points are given for rudeness, bullying or swearing, among other things. Three demerits means a corrective action notice is sent home to the parents. They also get a detention the following day after school. If it’s something more serious or continual, the parents are called for a meeting. They also have the right, says Lemmert, to expel kids in extreme cases.

When they get close to graduating, says Lemmert, the students consult their projection sheet and know exactly how many more pace levels they must complete to accomplish the task. They are constantly self-testing and parents are always aware of their child’s progress.

“The goal is that the student is successful in whatever they want to do. The education is a tool for them to do whatever they want to do in life and be successful at it,” she said.

“You can have someone with an A+ average and they aren’t successful. Maybe because they have poor self esteem or never discovered their identity. We teach them to be successful in all aspects. We make sure they have a strong Cree identity and appreciation for their culture, self worth and the academics that they need to be able to do what they want in life.”

The CLIP program

The public school system focuses heavily on language. However, they have struggled with how they should teach the Cree language in Mistissini.

The Cree as a Language of Instruction Program, or CLIP, has worked well in the coastal, more northerly communities. It immerses kids into the Cree language in Grade 1, and it focuses on strengthening the students’ Cree writing skills. They are introduced to new vocabulary with long-sounding syllabics.

From there, according to the Cree School Board’s website: as the students enter the grade two and three levels, the degree to which the students are taught in Cree is decreased. In the grade two level, 70% of the curriculum is taught in Cree whereas in the grade three level, it is 60%. By the third grade, the students are completely familiar with the Cree syllabic chart, including the long sounding syllables.

However, vocabulary continues to be developed at this level. By this time, writing is the main focus where the students compose short stories entirely in Cree syllabics. Journal writing is a frequent exercise. The students also participate in group activities such as writing storybooks and recording of monthly events, all of which are written in Cree.

For the remaining elementary years, Cree as a language of instruction is maintained. However, at the grade four level, the student reaches the Immersion stage of the CLIP program. At this time, the students begin the French or English sector curriculum which they continue until grade eleven. The students’ Cree language instruction is reduced to one 90-minute period per day at the grade four level. This is continued until they reach the grade six level where it is two 90- minute classes per week.

From the grade four to grade six, the Cree language classes consist of lessons on several topics such as days of the week, months, body parts, animals, cardinal points, weather conditions, etc. – all of which continue to be taught in Cree syllabics. Other activities throughout these grade levels include board games, presentation of cultural videos, and reading of books written in Cree.

Kim Quinn believes that the CLIP program is not something that works in Mistissini due to its proximity to non-native urban centres such as Chibougamau and the continued erosion of the Cree language.

“There is not enough written text for these kids to learn Cree as easily as they would English or French. I don’t know necessarily if a strong enough research base or strong enough program exists for these kids to learn Cree as a Language of Instruction that would work like other immersion programs have worked elsewhere. More needs to be done in that area, and maybe it would work at some point.”

That is why the new pilot project was introduced four years ago to teach kids half in French and half in Cree starting from pre-kindergarten.

“The pilot project is working because there is a lot more instructional material in English and French,” said Quinn. “There’s a lot more to go by. I want the kids to have literacy skills and I don’t know if they’re necessarily having them with the CLIP program.”

Quinn argues that children should have critical literacy skills by Grade 3 and should be reading to learn by Grade 4. “A lot of our kids don’t have that,” she complained. “They aren’t able to read for themselves and become life-long learners. I don’t blame it on any sort of program, but the pilot project might be the best thing.”

She talked about the different levels of any given class in Voyageur and the difference in other schools.

“There seems to be an overall lack of parental involvement with the exception of a few in class,” said Quinn, who attended Voyageur until Grade 4 and feels she was prepared at the time because she was an avid reader and had great teachers throughout her elementary years.

“That seems to be what really makes it more difficult for teachers to work in and for children to go to. The teacher has to spread their resources out a lot more than teachers would in another school. In schools like MacLean or the Christian school, you have parents that are more invested in their child’s education. They will spend their money to take an apartment in Chibougamau or have their child board with somebody for that education.”

Quinn said that the problem at the elementary level has to be corrected for the Cree Nation to flourish.

“Literacy is a foundation for everything. I know that our kids have fairly low literacy rates. I’m not sure if they’re even functionally literate when they leave high school when they need to be more than that to go to college,” she contended.

“If we want to have self-government and be more self-sufficient as a Nation, we do need to prepare our graduates a little more.”

When she was a teacher, absenteeism was a daily factor. Only a third of the kids would show up on time. Forty minutes into class, she said, there would still be another third of the class that had not arrived.

“You lose a lot of instructional time,” she said. “I think it’s something the administration and support staff has to enforce more. It’s common and it increases as they get older.”

Despite all the problems, she would still send her children, if she had any, to Voyageur. “I’d send them to Voyageur because I strongly believe in the public school system and I believe that our school is on its way to making changes that will give the students more effective instruction,” she said.

“We have strong teachers. It’s just a matter of making all of our resources work together to make a stronger school. I also know that I can support my child at home and I do want my child to learn Cree.”

Family dilemmas

Calvin Blacksmith, the former Director of Policing in the community and a newly-elected band councillor, decided to send his children to the Dabwetamun Academy, at a cost of $1,000 a month.

He became disillusioned with the CLIP program when he was working as a police officer in Nemaska six years ago.

“My daughter Roberta was attending Grade 1 in Nemaska in the CLIP program,” said Blacksmith. “We went Christmas shopping in Chicoutimi and lost sight of her. It took us 45 minutes to find her in the giant shopping centre. When we found her, she was surrounded by people asking her questions in French and English and she wasn’t responding. That’s when I first noticed there was something wrong with the school and the way language was being taught.

The incident frightened him and his family. The lesson, according to Blacksmith, was that in order to communicate in today’s society, one must be able to speak in the language of that society.

Another incident occurred at a restaurant when his young daughter was in the play area when she was approached by two other kids who spoke English and French. Soon after she came back to the table, embarrassed that she couldn’t understand them enough to play with them.

“That started to bother me,” said Blacksmith. “More and more what I’d do is test my daughter. I’d send her to buy candies at the store in Chibougamau. She couldn’t say or even point to which ones she wanted.”

That was when he realized that the CLIP program wasn’t suited to his child’s needs. When Roberta entered Grade 2, the family purchased a house in Chibougamau and Roberta was enrolled at the English-language MacLean Elementary School. He and his wife would take turns staying in Chibougamau during the week so his daughter could learn to communicate with the French majority and English minority.

When they moved to Mistissini a few years ago, Blacksmith’s children, Roberta, Whitney and Kiara, stayed in Chibougamau. Last year they sold their house in Chibougamau and decided to bus the kids to school from Mistissini.

The Dabwetamun Academy represented a chance to have their kids nearby and safe.

“We don’t have to wake up at six in the morning and get them on the bus by seven. Also, we don’t have to worry about them traveling back and forth every day to school. They will be in the community and if something happens, I’ll be there within minutes.”

Blacksmith was paying $7,000 a year to have his kids bused to Chibougamau, an hour each way. The new school added $5,000 to that total, but it was worth it.

“I know that they would bring some values into it and it’s a good foundation,” he said of the school. “We figured we would give it a try. I still have concerns about the school because it’s not recognized by the MEQ. If we see there’s no progress with our children, they’ll go back next year.”

Blacksmith said religion didn’t necessarily play a big part in the decision. “My parents are very religious but I’m not. It didn’t really influence me, but if they can get some values from it like respecting the Ten Commandments and respecting their parents, then that’s good.”

As the former Director of Policing in Mistissini, he has seen first hand how the lack of preparedness for CEGEP has affected Cree students.

He said that when potential candidates for policing were sent to John Abbott in Ste. Anne de Bellevue, the college would sometimes turn around and say that although they met the basic criteria, they were lacking in the area of instruction.

“In writing and reading, they were really lacking. It’s going to be a crisis in the future here,” he said.

The principals

Dorothy Nicholls, the Vice Principal at the elementary school at Voyageur Memorial, sees the effects of new elementary level-pilot programs first hand. She is impressed by the French/Cree and English/Cree pilot project but says that the CLIP can never work in Mistissini.

“I think we’re doing a lot of repairs,” said Nicholls, who has been at Voyageur for 15 years and vice principal for the past six. “When Alain [Bellemare] brought in UQAT researcher Lucie Lapointe, she identified the problems.”

Lapointe found that the children were receiving only 55 per cent of the required verbal skills, Nicholls noted.

“Their vocabularies were very low. Even in Cree. At 55 per cent, they were moving on from pre-K to Kindergarten to Grade 1 and it was getting less and less. By the time they got to Grade 2 or 3, these children had nothing to transfer from one language to another.”

When that happens, the child isn’t fluent in Cree nor in the second language, Nicholls says.

“We were trying to give them a second language on top of the first language, which was not fluent to start with. There were gaps in the system and they caused many of the children to come to a lower level of education,” she said.

When the vocational class ballooned to a larger size than the academic classes, that’s when Nicholls said the more experienced teachers started to put pressure on the school.

The French/Cree pilot project is producing tremendous results and is seen by Nicholls as one way to fix students’ learning impairment.

“The surprising thing is that their Cree ended up being the same as their French, which meant the transfer was really coming,” said Nicholls. “Right now we have 40 students there in both pre-K and Kindergarten in that system. We have a waiting list. Parents are very upset when they can’t put their children in, but they realize we have a limit,” said Nicholls.

The pilot project will be re-evaluated at the end of next year when its mandate expires.

“I have parents saying to me that they have a child in Grade 4 and another in Kindergarten in this project, and they say that the younger one is so much more prepared than the one in Grade 3,” she observed.

The reason it works so well, she said, is because the influence of French and English is so high in Mistissini that the educational reality calls for a program like this.

The CLIP program was successful in communities further north, said Nicholls. But, by way of explanation, she took a course that taught teachers Cree language instruction. Nicholls said that she passed the course, but found that her Cree wasn’t as fluent as it should be as a teacher.

“We’re so close to the outside, we’re more southern than the other Cree communities, so the influence of other languages came into play as well. The fluency wasn’t there. I passed the course and I would not say that I could teach pre-K or Kindergarten,” she said.

“There’s a need for Cree, for sure. We don’t want to lose our language. But the development in our community is huge. I see more and more people coming in and working with our community. We can’t stop the flow, so we have to be able to communicate with these people.”

Francine Roy, who is non-native, started her tenure at Voyageur Memorial School in September 2005.

She was running a business unrelated to education before coming to the community, but with 15 years as a teacher and a no-nonsense approach to education, she was anxious to face the new challenge.

“There is a large gap between the level of our students here and the ones down south,” she admitted.

“Of course there are social problems. That’s another delicate issue here. A lot of teenagers are into drinking and drugs. Some young girls get pregnant. There has been an awful lot of violence here lately,” she said, sadly.

She talked about a meeting with the band council and the decision to strike a task force with the different Cree organizations on how to deal with the violence.

“Last year, especially with Secondary 4 and 5, we concentrated on trying to get them to graduate. Some of them were so far behind,” said Roy, who talked about some students having 0 of 54 credits towards graduation, despite being in Secondary 5. “They were promoted without doing the work. This was a very serious situation,” she said.

Some of the new measures she implemented to try and boost the graduation rates were for the long-term.

Roy said that under the old principal, the students were only introduced to sciences in Secondary 4. This year, however, the implementation of science and technology begins in Secondary 1 up until Secondary 5.

Another new initiative brought in by Roy is “Around the World in 80 books.” The program promotes reading in every subject at every level. Each student will get a passport and travel around the world as they are reading.

“For example, in math, they could find the angle of the Leaning Tower of Pisa and then read about it,” she said. “If they do five minutes of reading in each subject, imagine how much reading they’ll do in a day? That will help their vocabulary and get them to improve their English or French, depending on what sector they’re in.”

Her goal is to boost student participation and encourage success.

“This year we’re trying to promote school spirit. We’re trying to come up with ideas for extra-curricular activities,” she said.

“We’re also starting a sport and art concentration. We’ll have hockey, dance and art. It’s aimed at Grade 6 and Secondary 1 students. It’s to motivate the kids to stay in school and have good attendance,” said Roy.

“We’re there to provide services, it’s up to the people in the community to take advantage of those services,” she said. “It’s my dream to have a Cree sitting in my chair one day and a Cree in charge of the CEGEP. They’re smart, they can do it. It’s just being persistent and going for their dreams.”

A new post-secondary reality

Two new programs popped up this year, after years of negotiation and review.

One of them is located at John Abbott College and is called the Cree Pathways Program. In it, students learn to adapt to their new environment and deal with culture shock.

There are currently 20 Cree students at John Abbott, many of whom will benefit from this new program, which works as a buffer between high school and college. If a student doesn’t do well, they can still earn credit toward future studies while not carrying a poor academic record.

The program helps them find an apartment and deal with homework as well. “The first two weeks are the critical weeks. That’s the make-or-break period,” said Pedagogical Counselor Darlene Wapachee, who is from Mistissini.

“It’s been in the works for a long time,” said Wapachee. “We knew we had to do something for our Cree students because as soon as they come to college, it’s too overwhelming so they end up failing their first semester.”

The Pathways program was promoted at career fairs in three Cree communities. But for some, it’s not the answer in furthering their education.

This year marked a first for Mistissini students who weren’t interested in the bright lights of the big city.

Fourteen students have enrolled in a preparatory program called the Ashuugans Program. It’s similar to the Cree Pathways Program, but was designed for students who wish to remain near their families.

“Our program is addressed to those who don’t want to go out of town, those who want to stay close to their communities,” said Gary James, Director of the Chibougamau College Studies Centre. He is also coordinator of the three-year pilot project.

The College Studies Centre is affiliated with St. Felicien College and has served the Cree communities for over 15 years.

James met Francine Roy, Voyageur’s Principal in June 2005 and they decided that there was a pressing need for the project. They presented it to the Cree School Board and it was accepted.

Of the 12 courses offered, 10 are at the college level and students will be credited for them. Two other courses are for upgrading math skills.

“We have a course that’s called personal and social development as well as humanities and knowledge,” said James. “In those courses, they see all the cultures in Quebec. We teach them how to budget and what they need for the first year of college. At the end of this program, they’ll have the choice to go to any CEGEP.”

If demand is high enough the program could become a full-fledged CEGEP in a short period of time.

The politicians

Ashley Iserhoff, the Deputy Grand Chief of the Grand Council of the Crees and a Mistissini resident, attended Voyageur Memorial School until Grade 6. When he went down south he was not prepared for the culture shock.

“When I first went down for Grade 7, I barely passed my year,” said Iserhoff. “I was told that I was a year behind. Now I understand that some kids are three or four years behind.”

He said that although the curriculum is not up to the standards of the southern schools, it’s up to the parents to make up for it.

“We have to make changes and adjustments so our kids can succeed. First and foremost I think parents need to get involved with their children’s education. Whatever you teach your kid at home, that’s what they are going to use in life,” he said.

“We have to start igniting fires in them. To make sure they’re able to read and to succeed. They need that education so they can move on and achieve their dreams.

“We want kids to succeed in our communities and we want them to succeed when they go out,” he continued. “So they do have to learn Cree and French and English to succeed. People cannot limit themselves by saying that they’ll stay around their home communities the rest of their life.”

Iserhoff pointed to NHL superstar Jonathan Cheechoo as an example of what someone can do when they put their minds to it. “He had to leave his community to achieve what he wanted to do.”

Gordon Blackned, the newly-elected Chairman (and former Director General) of the Cree School Board, also hails from Mistissini.

“It seems to be working quite well,” Blackned said of the French/Cree and English/Cree pilot project. “The students are grasping the second language much better because of the proximity of the southern institutions to Mistissini.”

Although he agrees with the project, he said that his community will have to make a choice of which direction they want to go.

“Identity is very important and it’s something that is very close to the heart of a people. I have concerns about that. I have grandchildren in Mistissini,” said Blackned, who said that he is impressed that his six-year-old granddaughter speaks very good Cree and has picked up French and English as well.

Blackned has been involved with education for 30 years as a teacher and administrator. He knows the ins and outs of the Cree system and realizes changes have to be made.

“I think it’s time that the Cree Nation, through our leadership, decides if we’re going to continue to be Cree and to speak our language,” said Blackned.

He continues to believe that while Cree language and culture is strong, schools need to continue to reinforce the Cree difference.

“If we lose our language and culture and are assimilated into non-native society, we’ll be the same as the Mohawks or some of the other First Nations across the country, said Blackned. “They are almost at a losing battle in trying to get back their language.”

g quite well,” Blackned said of the French/Cree and English/Cree pilot project. “The students are grasping the second language much better because of the proximity of the southern institutions to Mistissini.”

Although he agrees with the project, he said that his community will have to make a choice of which direction they want to go.

“Identity is very important and it’s something that is very close to the heart of a people. I have concerns about that. I have grandchildren in Mistissini,” said Blackned, who said that he is impressed that his six-year-old granddaughter speaks very good Cree and has picked up French and English as well.

Blackned has been involved with education for 30 years as a teacher and administrator. He knows the ins and outs of the Cree system and realizes changes have to be made.

“I think it’s time that the Cree Nation, through our leadership, decides if we’re going to continue to be Cree and to speak our language,” said Blackned.

He continues to believe that while Cree language and culture is strong, schools need to continue to reinforce the Cree difference.

“If we lose our language and culture and are assimilated into non-native society, we’ll be the same as the Mohawks or some of the other First Nations across the country, said Blackned. “They are almost at a losing battle in trying to get back their language.”