The Cree School Board hosted its first Post-Secondary Students Services (PSSS) conference in Ottawa, featuring honest and at times heart-rending admissions of struggles and how they were overcome.
Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty led a delegation of leaders from all major Cree entities, respected Elders and accomplished graduates to the April 21-23 conference. Students were invited to develop a network of peers and meet potential employers, perhaps the conference’s most significant benefit was the sense of solidarity it brought to students far from home.
“They saw I’m not alone on this education path,” said Darryl Diamond, CSB’s post-secondary student affairs technician. “A strong message shared was the importance of knowing the people you come from but also being dedicated to your learning and having that work ethic to serve your Cree.”
Among the approximately 450 Cree students in post-secondary studies, about 300 reside in the Ottawa/Gatineau region. A wide variety of workshops and employer networking booths at the conference connected students with potential career paths ranging from specialized healthcare positions to traditional arts and crafts.
Workshop topics included media communications, midwifery, budgeting and resume building, entrepreneurship and nurturing mental health. Several Cree artists and artisans exhibited skills like moosehide sewing and slipper beading in the cultural teachings room while Elders Roderick and Janie Pachano and David and Anna Bosum hosted valued breakfast discussions.
“Just their presence and discussions with the youth brought so much joy and reassurance that we are validated and loved by our Elders,” said event emcee Joshua Iserhoff. “It assured us how important it is to safeguard our traditional language and culture, something every student sacrifices when they come to an institution in the south.”
Iserhoff admired the promotional material, banquet entertainment and detailed snowshoe-themed floor directions. He was also encouraged by PSSS coordinator Andrea Kitchen’s announcement that some of the CSB’s “outdated policies” were being reviewed.
Heading into the conference, the CSB faced controversy following a CBC article alleging that 18-year-old Khayden Carter Dick’s funding was cut after he failed two courses and missed a deadline to file paperwork. The award-winning Whapmagoostui student with dreams of becoming a doctor reached a crisis point this winter and was admitted to hospital with serious, self-inflicted wounds.
While the CSB refuted some of the article’s claims, the incident raised important issues about the adequacy of support offered, particularly to younger students inexperienced with budgeting and urban realities. Law student Raven Icebound Lord recalled her own stress when she failed a course in her first semester and wasn’t able to reach a counsellor in the PSSS office.
“If you’re fresh out of school, it’s very difficult to navigate,” explained Icebound Lord. “It’s a lot to juggle in such a short span. They could talk one-on-one with students, similar to the Gladue report’s individualized healing path in the criminal justice system.”
While Indigenous bridging programs and specialized advisors increasingly offered by universities can help transfer the unique survival skills required for southern life, multiple students suggested these resources could be better communicated and coordinated by the CSB.
Although social media has simplified networking among Cree students, Icebound Lord finds it challenging to overcome busy schedules and geographic barriers. Still, she is attempting to launch an Indigenous law student network in Montreal and was pleased to meet another student at the conference interested in creating a study group.
While Icebound Lord has secured daycare at her university, being a single parent without family nearby has its own challenges. Joshua Loon advocated for a parents committee with unique services, which is planned to launch next year.
Previously known as “the radio guy” in Cree Health Board communications, Loon left Mistissini with his wife and four children to study journalism at Montreal’s Concordia University.
“The Cree Nation needs more Cree writers,” Loon asserted. “If you write it down, people will read it in 50 years. How many Cree medicines were lost because we didn’t write it down? Did you ever play the game broken telephone?”
Suggesting CSB allowances are insufficient for rising rents and daily expenses, Loon recommended that younger students be paired with a mentor. If he were one, Loon said he’d advise the youth to understand their finances from the beginning – and finish school before having children.
Keynote speakers CSB chairperson Sarah Pashagumskum, Eeyou Istchee Lifestyle founder Raymond Jolly and Cree physician Dr. Kevin Brousseau delivered transformational messages.
“I was thinking of calling it quits,” shared Loon. “Kevin Brousseau quit his first time, but he decided to go back and really focus on his education. I told him I decided to return to school because of his story – it was so inspiring.”
Acknowledging the huge learning curve students must face to pursue higher education, Darryl Diamond said the CSB is itself learning from comments shared at the conference. He suggested today’s investments fulfill the vision of yesterday’s leaders of a people gaining worldly skills while staying true to their roots.
“I kept hearing the words opportunity, responsibility and privilege,” Diamond said. “Our Cree people have had generations before them work hard to give what we have today. The opportunities available for our young are strong steppingstones.”
By Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter