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2022 is the Year of Special Needs in Eeyou Istchee

BY Patrick Quinn Jul 20, 2022

One of the primary outcomes of last November’s initial Eeyou Tripartite Table, comprised of the Grand Chief and leaders of the school and health boards, was the recognition of the need for a regional special needs policy. The Table declared that 2022 would be the Year of Special Needs in Eeyou Istchee.

“We believe that families, social workers and educational staff could greatly benefit from a symposium on special needs and look forward to what we can achieve together,” said Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty following the meeting. “We must plan and work together if we are to provide the best support possible for all members of our communities.” 

The Cree School Board led the planning for a special needs symposium to be held November 27-December 3 in Gatineau. It’s an issue close to the heart of CSB chairperson Sarah Pash, who had to seek services outside the territory for her own child. 

“The purpose of the symposium is to bring parents together with practitioners and other support givers so they can look at ways to practically support their children day-to-day, share experience and also look at things like self-care and advocacy,” explained Pash. “We’re looking at the symposium as a way to help parents feel supported and welcomed and create a space for them.”

To organize the event, the CSB is meeting regularly with the Cree Health Board and the Kate Sharl Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing culturally appropriate resources for Cree people with special needs. With the goal of helping Eeyou children with special needs feel important, the Foundation helps kids realize their dreams, whether it’s meeting their heroes, attending camps or getting specialized bikes.

“Before it was only for children but now we’ve extended that to adults,” clarified Foundation vice-president Christine Duff. “The foundation is there to financially support equipment or any type of camp within the criteria. For example, recently there was an application from a girl who wanted to go to a deaf camp. Another child in the city for school requested an iPad to communicate with their family and community.”

While resources such as speech language pathologists became available in recent years, many children still require professional services in Montreal or are on waiting lists due to the pandemic. As the Foundation is exclusively funded through donations, shutdowns over the past few years have strained the organization’s finances.

On August 13, the Foundation will host its fifth annual golf benefit at the Doubletree Hotel in Gatineau, which is its biggest fundraiser. Registrations and sponsorship packages are available until July 30 through the Foundation’s website for $150 or $200 including a meal.  

“We’re really looking forward to that because it couldn’t happen for two years and we needed to do a big event to continue the foundation,” Duff told the Nation. “This is the first event we’ll have a celebrity, actor Yvon Barrette (who played Denis Lemieux in the 1977 movie Slap Shot). Hopefully people don’t get black eyes.”

There will also be a performance by the Andy Dewache Band, a country band from Maniwaki. For the event’s auction, they’re asking people to donate traditional items, gift certificates or handmade arts and crafts to help raise extra funds. The Foundation is additionally planning a walkathon fundraiser in Chisasibi sometime this autumn.

The organization was created in 2009 in memory of Kate Sharl from Ouje-Bougoumou, who was born with brain trauma and required a special van to get to treatments. Her family struggled to pay for her basic needs and spent countless hours in hospitals for their “little bird with a broken wing” but sadly she passed away days after her fifth birthday.  

President Barbara Snowboy, who also works with the Cree Nation’s Child and Family Services Department, regularly visits the region’s childcare centres to support their special needs educators and shadows. There are currently about 70 children aged five and under with special needs in these centres, mostly with speech and behaviour issues. 

“We provide special equipment for their needs, especially learning toys and a special walker for one child,” explained Snowboy. “We send school transition forms when they’re out of the daycare to (inform) teachers, do referrals to clinics and consultations to see the speech language pathologist, the occupational or physical therapist, or special educator.”

Through Cégep de Saint-Felicien, Snowboy previously delivered a one-year in-community training program for special needs educators. Similar courses are offered in Waskaganish and Whapmagoostui. Training focuses on initiatives such as “calm-down kits” that include specific toys for children with behaviour issues and will soon be available in every daycare playroom. 

To promote awareness, Child and Family Services and the Kate Sharl Foundation will have an information booth at this year’s Annual General Assembly in Eastmain. They’ll also have booths at the special needs symposium, where Snowboy will lead a workshop about the Nipissing checklist, which reviews a child’s growth and development at a specific age.

With parent involvement, questionnaires help identify where children require extra stimulation with language, fine or gross motor skills, or social and emotional aspects. However, some parents don’t want to sign the consent forms or have one-on-one support.

“Some parents are in denial when they see their child has red flags,” Snowboy explained. “We don’t tell them your child has this or that, but we do a team meeting to look at where the child has low scores. I think we need to have training for parents to know about integration in childcare, not only in the daycares but also the schools.”

The CSB has been reorganizing services in its special needs department, improving its speech language expertise and initiating consultations to understand local needs.

“We are enhancing partnerships between the CSB, the daycare system and the Cree Health Board so that we can take a more integrated approach to special needs support,” asserted Pash. “This will ensure that files are continuously followed from daycare through to secondary with the goal that no child falls through the cracks. With concerted efforts, we can all make a difference for our children.”

by Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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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.