The Cree School Board celebrates 30 years of service to Cree students, teachers and staff. The major theme of the celebration, titled “Cree Education Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow‚” showed appreciation to the past efforts of regimes. The CSB has built what has become one of the Cree Nation’s prime investors in the future of students both past and present.
The invitees included all previous and current directors, the current chiefs of the nine communities and the students who represent their communities as well as the three winners of this year’s public-speaking contest in Cree, French and English. The event was held May 27-29 in Mistissini’s new office building where the head office of the CSB is located.
The opening of the celebrations started with a prayer by Elder Smally Petawabano and Makayla Mattawashish of Mistissini in both Cree and English. The ribbon-cutting ceremony also included speeches by CSB’s current chairman Gordon Blackned, Grand Chief Matthew Mukash and Ministry of Education representative Jean Berube. The raising of the flag was done by Alex MacDonald (Chisasibi), Claude Coonishish (Nemaska) and Chester Cheezo (Eastmain). This was followed with the singing of the Canadian National Anthem by Issac Mianscum (English), Sonia Trapper (Cree) and Neesha-Chanan Shecapio (French).
Grand Chief Matthew Mukash praised the Cree School Board. “When we look at the accomplishments of the Cree School Board we have to remember what the schools in our communities were like before the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. The schools were too small, run-down and under-equipped. Moreover, schools were foreign territory to the parents, who were not comfortable there. There were almost no Cree teachers and the language of instruction was either English or French, depending on which school system was running the school – Quebec or the federal government. Even in their own communities, the Crees were not in control of the education of their children and Cree adults were not very welcome in the schools!”
Mukash looked at the Cree Way Project in Waskaganish as the “very first major change.” He said, “This remarkable project brought Cree culture and language into the Cree schools by providing Cree curriculum materials for the primary grade students in the Cree language and in English.”
Mukash said the Cree School Board was part of the reason why the residential-school era ended for the Crees when the CSB began in 1978. “We closed down this system that too often subjected members of at least two generations of Crees to the cruelty of irresponsible managers working in cold institutional schools. As a result, these generations of Crees grew up outside of their families and removed from their culture. It was with the Cree School Board that brought education back to our communities and the children back to their families, where they belonged.”
Mukash said there were many changes in the Cree communities since Crees were mainly a hunting society. “Think of the great difference between the life of a Cree child growing up today in a Cree community and one growing up in the 1960s. Today a child sees people making a living working in offices, working as police officers, pilots, working in construction, or as fire fighters, teachers, working in restaurants, in health care, in forestry, mining and hydro-electric development. Moreover, they see the world on television and on the internet. They are faced with a world of choices and opportunities.”
He said the CSB has been part of that and the path hasn’t been always been easy. “We must remember that we seized control of Cree education in 1975. Neither Canada nor Quebec gave it to us. The experience of the Cree School Board and of Cree governance proves this point. We had to fight for every gain that we have made since we signed the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement in 1975. We fought for the construction of adequate schools and for the budgets to provide the education promised in Section 16 of the treaty.”
Mukash sees the CSB as being an important part of the Cree way of life: past, present and for the future. He said, “Ask yourself: What are the best protections of our rights and way of life? The answer has to include our continued occupation of the land and the role of the Cree School Board in informing our children about their history and in preparing them to compete with others for the development of the resources on our lands.
“Education is the key to the freedom of the Cree People and to a healthy and prosperous Cree Nation.
“We must adapt and cannot always be limited by the separation of our people into 10 trading-post derived communities. In the past we were one people, the Eeyouch-Eenouch, living on our lands as the Eeyou Nation. It was only with the Indian Act that we became known as separate communities and this has continued under the Cree/Naskapi Act.”
Mukash went on to state, “The Cree School Board will be important in building the Cree Nation, as it will provide the training needed to implement a new level of Cree Nation governance that has yet to be seen elsewhere in Canada.
“As we build the Cree Nation, there will be growing needs for all types of expertise and the Cree School Board and the other Cree entities and businesses will have to find new ways to cooperate so as to build our economy and increase our jurisdiction and role in the governance of our lands.”
The master of ceremonies for the event was JBCCS’s well-known program manager and broadcaster Luke MacLeod. He presented the opening of Cree Day, followed by activities outside of the sports complex including net-making, carving, sewing, embroidery and snowshoe-making in traditional tee-pees.
The opening feast, catered by Dave Mianscum and other community members, consisted of traditional food and a speech presented by Freddie Dixon, the winner of the public-speaking contest in the Cree sector. Following the meal was the recognition of Grand Chief Mathew Mukash, longest-reigning Principal Dorothy Gilpin, longest-reigning school committee member George W. Gilpin and retired CEA Alfred Coonishish. Later that evening fiddle music and traditional fiddle dances were presented by the youth of Eastmain as well as Mistissini.
The meals following the opening were catered by Ottawa’s Sweetgrass Aboriginal Bistro co-owned by Mistissini’s very own Phoebe Blacksmith-Sutherland.