Though school might be out for the summer, for some Crees this spring marked school being out forever for them.
While the Nation would like to congratulate everyone who graduated from their respective academic programs this spring, we caught up with a handful of post-secondary graduates to see what it felt like to reach their academic goals.
With his PhD in hand, at 61 years young, George Blacksmith has finally graduated from McGill University to become Dr. George Blacksmith, a feat he is particularly proud of after all of the adversity he had to overcome to finally achieve this dream.
But, being an academic wasn’t Blacksmith’s first incarnation in life. After graduating from McGill with a Bachelor of Education in 1984 and later getting a Master’s degree in the same field, Blacksmith worked first as a teacher and then moved on to school administration for 14 years. He also worked for the Cree Regional Authority as its director general and then became the director of community development for Mistissini.
But, throughout all of those years, Blacksmith said he felt something was missing which is what led him back to academia in 2004 when he began to pursue his doctoral studies.
“The best way to start talking about this would be to go back to the biggest challenge I faced doing this and that was being away from home. The commitment was extremely challenging because I had many social distractions. I unfortunately experienced a kidney failure during my doctoral studies and that set me back by a few years. It was also very difficult to find a job,” said Blacksmith.
Blacksmith was criticized by his peers and those in his home community for going back to school in his 50s. He was frequently told that he was just too old to do it.
“In the Cree communities, it is a very tight-knit world. It is hard to get into any kind of challenging position if you don’t know the right people.
“Because I was also at the level that I was at, having pretty much done everything, for me to go and meet the challenges of academic studies was something that I really wanted to do,” said Blacksmith.
And so, he pushed forward and began his doctoral research on the intergenerational impacts of the residential school system throughout Quebec’s Cree communities of James Bay with a particular focus on the communities of Mistissini, Oujé-Bougoumou and Waswanipi.
While he wanted to thank his wife, Anna, and their children, Brenda, Andrew, Jimmy-George, Melanie and Willie-Sam as well as his son William from a different mother for their support, Blacksmith’s gratitude extended beyond family.
He said he was incredibly grateful towards his friend and doctoral advisor, Dr. Steve Jordan, but in particular everyone who took part in his doctoral research.
Blacksmith spent many painstaking hours interviewing Elders and community members about the history of the Cree nation and its colonization through the residential school system.
“I am very grateful to the Elders who gave their time to sit with me and pass on their knowledge about what went on and the kinds of experiences our people encountered, especially during the 1930s.
“One of the most difficult issues to fathom was how these people were literally taken off the land and put into enclosed shelters in the residential school system which really impacted them in the future, particularly when they had their own kids,” said Blacksmith.
Blacksmith reflected on the content of his research and what happened to the Crees. Discussing how not only were generations of Crees ripped away from their families by law enforcement but the children were forced to live lives that were unlike anything they had ever known and probably nothing they should have ever known.
Tortured while away in residential schools for speaking their own language, these children would return to the Cree communities unable to speak their own languages, viewing their parents as strangers and often blaming these strangers because they could no longer identify with their own culture and people. He described the pain endured over and over again as each generation went through it.
“The children were taught to believe that our parents were stupid. Regularly they were socially, mentally, physically and sexually abused and that really had an impact on all of them. I speak from experience because I went through it for 15 years,” said Blacksmith.
So, on June 1, his graduation day, Blacksmith said he didn’t do this doctorate for himself; he did it for everyone he interviewed and everyone who shared their experience with him.
In time, Blacksmith hopes to use his doctoral research to create a curriculum for Cree students on the legacy of the residential school system so that they can understand how it has played a significant role in the history of the Crees and how it has impacted every event in Cree history since.
At the same time, reflecting on his graduation, Blacksmith is proud of his latest accomplishment, despite being called “the oldest student in the Cree nation” and being made fun of along the way.
“You know what, that didn’t bother me. I said I was going to succeed and I did. And if I can do it, I hope that the younger people will follow in my footsteps,” said Blacksmith.
Chisasibi’s Amanda Sam has finally completed her DEC at Dawson College, where she studied in the Creative Arts, Languages and Literature Program under the Visual Arts profile.
But, getting that diploma was a bit of a rocky road for Sam.
“It feels great to have stuck with this commitment. This was actually my third time going to college. The first time around I studied for a year at La Cité collégiale in Ottawa in General Arts and Science, but then figured out that I wanted to work instead. The second time was in 2005, when I went and did a semester at Heritage College (in Gatineau), but then my grandmother fell ill and I decided to drop out and move home,” said Sam
Sam began at Dawson in the fall of 2008 and while she had a hard time adjusting because it had been a while since she had been in school and most of her classmates were 10 years younger, for her it was totally worth it.
She had wanted to study Visual Arts to improve her skills as a visual artist, her life’s passion.
“I noticed recently while I was reviewing my portfolio the evolution and the growth of my colour selection. I rarely used colour before, I mainly used ink, pencil or charcoal, my work was very basic. Now I just love using bright colours and I am having fun with this now,” said Sam.
While Sam is still plotting out her next move academically, her goal of learning more traditional mediums has been met. She has aspirations to continue her studies at the university level and embark on her long-term goal of working on a graphic novel.
Whapmagoostui’s John Mamianskum became the proud recipient of a Masters of Law (LL.M) this spring from the University of Ottawa and is currently considering the wide array of new options open to him, with pursuing his doctoral studies as just one of them.
“I am considering my options right now as to whether to do the Bar and obviously do the articling that goes with it. And at the same time, I am considering a doctorate. I will most likely pursue the articling first,” said Mamianskum.
Mamianskum explained that the “articling” in question is part of the regular process to practice law before writing the necessary exams.
Working for the Whapmagoostui band council for the time being in human resources, Mamianskum’s legal studies have given him a tremendous background when it comes to employment law and contract law. But, to fulfill his desires to be an even greater asset to the Cree nation, he would like to pursue getting a doctorate.
“I want to study Aboriginal peoples in law and constitutional law. I know there is a program at the University of Arizona and two other Crees have already studied there,” said Mamianskum.
At the same time, Mamianskum is applying to programs in Toronto, Ottawa and Vancouver to see which university holds the best future for him.
“I am really happy about getting my Masters,” said Mamianskum. At 49, he has spent years dedicating himself to his education while maintaining a career and a family life.
Still, Mamianskum said he wants to keep pursuing his studies, in order to help Aboriginal peoples continue to further themselves in the modern world.
Also hailing from Whapmagoostui, Enomey Masty has just earned her BA, a double major in Sociology and Anthropology, from Concordia University.
“I am pretty proud. Throughout the four and a half years of going to university fulltime I have felt this wonderful support network,” said Masty.
Masty had already made two previous attempts at post-secondary institutions but found it difficult as she was without family support. But, that was before Masty became a mother. She explained that the only way she managed to make it through her double major was because her mother moved down to the south to help her manage studying fulltime while caring for a young child.
Returning to Montreal as a mature student, Masty has surpassed her own aspirations. She is also taking away a great deal from this experience having dramatically improved her research and writing skills as well as her vocabulary.
“I felt as a Cree person from an isolated community that my writing skills would be at an intermediate level, but it turns out that I am pretty advanced.”
As for the future, Masty, 29, feels she can do anything she wants to and that is the plan. Her next step is to continue her studies, possibly studying Social Ecology or Forensic Anthropology, and she is looking to start up organization that will deal with social ecology.
“I just found out that my GPA is 3.0 and I started thinking that I can now go anywhere I want,” said a proud and excited Masty as she pondered her future.
On behalf of the Nation, congratulations to everyone who has completed another successful school year and especially to those that have realized their dreams and are leaving with a degree, a diploma, a certificate or even a doctorate in hand.