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Arts & Culture ᐊᔨᐦᑐᐧᐃᓐ

Cree students impress at annual public speaking contest

BY Patrick Quinn Jul 3, 2024

Cree students overcame jittery nerves May 22 to make powerful speeches at a public-speaking contest. 

Twenty young orators delivered an address in English, French or Cree during the annual event hosted this year at Willie J. Happyjack Memorial School in Waswanipi. Students were competing for prizes up to $1000. A new addition this year was a category for students in Grade 4, 5 and 6. 

“I am always amazed by the power of our young people’s voices,” said Cree School Board chairperson Sarah Pash. “Their speeches were engaging, thought-provoking, and so full of commitment to our future. It is not easy to get up in front of people, but these young people really shone.”

Each community sends one representative who has advanced from local competitions in each language to this longstanding Cree event. Pash recalled being a public-speaking coach and accompanying a student to the event in 1997 during her first year as a teacher. 

Waswanipi’s local contest was postponed until after Goose Break because of a tragic accident in March that closed schools for four days, so organization for the regional event was rushed. Flora Otter and her sons began cutting up old teepee poles for the stage design at 8pm the night before. 

Otter credited the other members of the regional committee – Lea Lingaya, Christine Branchaud and Mireille Pariseau – for contributing to the evening’s elegant setting. As a Cree language and culture teacher who has supported students at previous events, Otter said that Waswanipi won the community award the second year in a row for its successful entrants.

“We push our students to participate,” suggested Otter. “In Cree we didn’t have a student, so I asked a Cree speaker if he wanted to do it last minute. He wrote it and I helped him with how to present it. We need more Cree participants.”

As the only Cree participant in the secondary category, Nylander Ottereyes took the prize for his speech connecting language learning with going to the bush two weeks a year with his grandparents. He suggested each school should have cabins available for children who lack this opportunity.

Most Secondary 5 students sent videos instead of presenting in-person because exams were held the same week. Otter was surprised at the high number of video submissions, noting that it’s much different than speaking before an audience. Most speeches discussed either the importance of language and culture, mental health issues or climate change. 

Waswanipi’s Kaylee Ryan-Capissisit won the English prize for the second consecutive year for a speech connecting climate change issues with her personal experience during last summer’s wildfires. Interspersing larger trends with humour, she said that after the community’s electricity, water system and cellphone coverage were impacted, she was “pretty much just waiting for zombies.”

The 15-year-old told the Nation that the competitions have been her only public speaking performances so far. She noted that because most students are very shy, teachers usually let them present one-on-one. However, Ryan-Capissisit said the public event helped her improve her social skills as well as her research and grammar. 

“Public speaking made me a lot more outgoing,” said Ryan-Capissisit. “At the store, I wouldn’t want to have a conversation with the cashier because I’d be too shy. But now, I can just talk without being worried.”

Ryan-Cassipit said young people should not refuse a public-speaking opportunity before they’ve even tried. “When you’re about to go on stage, you’re going to feel super anxious. But once you’re on there. just keep going,” she recommended. “Then you’ll feel the flow.”

Nemaska secondary student Aaliyah Wapachee placed second for her presentation about the Cree language. She shared the community connection she feels on Annie Whiskeychan Day, playing Cree bingo and learning life lessons from Elders. Wapachee marvelled at how a single Cree word can communicate a phrase like “water on the ground from melting snow.”

Also from Nemaska, Paige Diamond took third prize as she broke down the stigma around mental health. Diamond criticized the sexist language preventing men from expressing their emotions and the teachers who misinterpreted her struggles as laziness. She recommended drawing, reading and surrounding yourself with nature. 

“It’s important for students to speak about what’s important for them,” asserted Otter. “They were all insightful – it’s important for us to listen to what they have to say. It’s good to encourage students to participate, even when they’re scared. The effort is what really counts.”

Mistissini student Mireya Jacob initially felt she couldn’t do her speech but was encouraged to try again. She did, and earned a first-place tie in the French category along with Nery Djégnéné. Deandra Spencer Tebiscon came third. 

In the elementary school categories, Liam Wapachee won the English prize followed by Anderson Dixon and Giselle Salt Moar. Waskaganish students Rose Dube and Naysia Hester won their respective categories in French and Cree.

“Giving students the space to feel comfortable expressing themselves is part of a bigger picture we’re working at,” explained Pash. “This public speaking event is part of creating a pro-social environment that is highly collaborative, learning to work together to lift each other up.”

Pash added that this event demonstrated the benefits of pushing students’ limits through oral presentations. 

“We want to show students there are ways to use your voice as a powerful tool to send a message,” Pash said. “There are healthy ways to establish an argument with well-researched points and a cohesive message. Our young people are so bright, courageous and strong – I know we have even more wonderful things to hear from them.” 

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.