When everyone else was heading off to residential school, Paul Gull’s father had something different in mind for his children. He told Indian Affairs, “I want to take care of my own children.” Gull, who has been chair of the Cree School Board since 1992, learned from his father that education begins at home.

“That’s one of the things I value most,” Gull told the Nation’s Ernest Webb in an interview about the state of the Cree education system. “And that’s what I’d like to tell people. That’s the way education has to be: It has to begin at home. Parents have to be more involved in the education process.”

The Nation: How was your father able to avoid sending you to a residential school? Wasn’t it law?

Paul Gull: I don’t know how. Indian Affairs paid for the tuition where we went to school. I guess he told them he didn’t want us to leave our home community of Matagami. We always went to school in Matagami. The taxi used to come pick us up every morning. Eventually, when more people moved there because of the projects, the bus came.

So you consider yourself lucky?

I do because I’ve seen the hardships he went through in order to get us through that process. A lot of people know about the Matagami area. We went through a lot of hard times in order to get our education. My father worked on the project in James Bay. My mother took care of us. One thing I can be proud of is one year, none of us missed school. In one whole year, we had zero absenteeism for the whole family. There were eight of us going to school. I guess there were times when we didn’t have enough to eat. Still, we were always at school. I can thank my mother for that.

What about students today? Do you think they realize how lucky they are to…

The reasoning behind the schools being in the community is that people can take care of their own children. I guess this came with the James Bay Agreement. People started talking about controlling the education system. We have to take control of what’s happening in our own communities. The students have to realize it’s important that they go to school on a day-to-day basis. People know if you miss a day, you have to catch upon the following day. Sometimes the teachers don’t have time to spend on a certain individual who’s always missing school because they have a program to follow.

The Cree School Board report which you presented at the Annual General Assembly identified your major concerns about education. What are your findings so far?

The major concerns came from the people themselves, from community tours. Some of the findings were that there was a high dropout rate, high absenteeism, low interest from the students and a superficial view of Cree culture in the programs. In the past, there was a lot of talk about how the Cree programs should work. I don’t want to blame anybody for what’s happened. I guess it’s part of the growing process, growing pains.

These are opinions which were given on the community level and what we are trying to do in identifying those four major concerns is to get people to start thinking about how solutions can be found. When we go back, we expect to hear those solutions. Something that happened in the past is we had a tendency to go into the community and tell the people what to do. And they tend to fall back and say that’s not my solution; why should I work on it. People have to realize they have to come up with the solutions themselves. When you take the solutions to heart, so to speak, that’s when you can actually follow through on them. We’ll help them as best as we can at the Cree School Board.

What do you tell a student who wants to drop out or has already dropped out?

The CSB is working on a mechanism. Right now, there is adult upgrading in every community. From last year, the clientele for adult ed doubled. Last year, there were approximately 300 people enrolled. Now, we have about 600. The major need right now is people want to go back and get their diploma.

For the students who are thinking of dropping out or have already dropped out, I can’t tell them to go back. If you do drop out, at least be a useful member of the community so you can help other people and not be a nuisance to the community. Try and be a useful member of the community. That’s the encouragement I can give them. Gradually, they’ll realize they need education.

When you talk about the levels of literacy in the classrooms, what about the students who can’t follow what’s going on? What alternatives are there for them?

Presently, the alternative for them is the program Individual Pathways To Education, which gives you the basics in math, English and French. Those major courses have to be covered. Then, they give you an opportunity to work in the community. It’s a job-oriented concept to education. We’ve been looking for typical vocational sectors for these people who don’t want to go into the mainstream of education. They have an opportunity to go into mechanics, electricity, carpentry or what have you. What we’re trying to do is harmonize adult ed and the youth center so we don’t have to pay twice for the same course.

What does the absenteeism rate tell us?

Thirty percent of the students miss a majority of their classes. Once a student misses over 20 per cent, he is, according to statistics, due to fail that course. The absenteeism rate is too high. For example, some people have missed more than 30 days in a year; in some cases, it’s 40 days. That’s two months a year. It you add it up from grade one to secondary V, that’s four years lost in total.

It’s the first time we’ve compiled statistics on absenteeism. This year, for example, during the hockey tournament in one school, half the school was missing Thursday to Tuesday. They all went to Val d’Or. We tried to work with the recreation directors to try finding within the school calendar an appropriate time for the tournament. I guess tradition has it that it has to be during the first or second week of December. We don’t have any holidays during that time at the school board. It’s exam preparation time so it has an effect on the students.

How about the Cree culture and language programs. The report says they aren’t satisfactory. How can you give quality Cree culture and language programs when the classes are two or three times a week 45 minutes at a time?

Right now, we’re teaching kindergarten and grade one in Cree. A person has to master his own tongue before being able to learn another language. We’re thinking about doing it all the way to grade three because, if you think about it, when you start picking up a new language you’re seven or eight years old. The basis of thought in language has to come from the mother tongue.

When I think back to when I was in grade 1, when I was reading, I thought in Cree. I was translating what I was reading in my head into Cree. Then I understood the story. I think that’s going very well. I hope it’s going well in all the schools because of the need to strengthen our own language.

When will those results come in?

The results are in now. Grade one is the pilot project we did this year in Chisasibi and Waskaganish. For Cree culture, the results will be in this coming year. In Waswanipi, for example, they changed the schedule to give more time to the Cree culture teacher in the bush doing activities that need to be done around the camp. They went there every morning and came back at 4:30.

I always thought the land was the Cree dictionary. I can speak Cree when I’m in the community. But when I go out on the land, I always learn five different new words every time I go out there. That’s why I feel Cree culture should be taught on the land.

The report mentioned that the school board needs a lot of help from the parents, the elders, the band councils and other community organizations. How would you like to see them offering a hand?

In some communities, the council declares through resolutions that education is a priority, and whenever there are educational activities, they get involved. In some cases, with funding or with fairs or public speaking contests. We want everyone to work toward the common goal of having more graduates in our schools.

One thing that comes up when I’m in the community is the comparison that someone has better standards than ours. I’ve always stated that wherever I went to school, they said that. When I was in Matagami, they said Val d’Or was better. When I was in Val d’Or, they told me Hull was better. It all depends on what happens in the family. That’s the ultimate reason why a child finishes school. As Matthew Coon-Come told me once: If a child is going to finish school 75 percent of it depends on the parent. If we can work with that idea, I’m sure the quality of education will improve for everybody.

What is your vision of education in the future?

I’d like to see the people empower themselves, believing that our schools and the way we do things will help for the future. If you start believing that other things are better than yours, then naturally it’s not going to work. If you believe we can do it ourselves as a people and that education can come from Cree culture and working with the non-native system, adapting it to our needs, I’m sure it can work and that the quality of education can improve.

Any final comments?

I’d like to wish everybody a Happy New Year. I hope we all work together for the common cause – the future of our children. Agooda.