The first graduating class of a new Cree culture and language program received certificates at an emotional ceremony June 22 in Pikogan First Nation. The programs were co-created by the Cree School Board (CSB) and McGill University’s Office of First Nations and Inuit Education (OFNIE).
A total of 57 students from Eeyou Istchee graduated – 46 earned their Culture and Language Certificate and 11 earned their Certificate in Cree Literacy. Many are continuing their studies with a Bachelor of Education, again benefiting from the opportunity to learn in their own communities.
“I’ve always wanted to teach and get my Bachelor of Education but things didn’t work for me to go down south,” said graduate Flora Otter. “When they implemented this in the community it helps a lot. Your children can speak Cree and still have their culture when they continue the program in the community.”
Being able to earn a rigorous McGill education in Waswanipi or Mistissini is the real strength of OFNIE, according to program director Jim Howden. OFNIE has been delivering in-community teacher education programs for over 40 years, working with Indigenous communities to deliver programs that meet their unique requirements.
“The opportunity to be working with the Cree School Board and developing programs that meet the needs of the communities, the teachers and the children is a brilliant experience for me as director,” Howden told the Nation. “What is really exciting is it is a certificate taught by Cree for Cree in Cree.”
Ensuring that culture and language are well supported in schools is top priority for the CSB. This program is not only vitally important for addressing the current shortage of qualified Cree teachers but also for growing competencies in diverse subject areas and at all levels.
“If we want to make sure we’re able to meet our needs as a nation in the long-term, we have to focus on training our own people from our own communities,” said CSB chairperson Sarah Pash. “We have to have our own teachers in our own classrooms just as an engagement factor to increase student success. Students need to see themselves in the people who are teaching them and in every subject area that they’re being taught in.”
Pash said the CSB has been continuously refining the program to ensure it best meets the nation’s needs. In addition to Cree language and culture courses, new courses like traditional healing and life skills were specially created for this program before it launched four years ago.
“We also need to focus on how we can support people who are going into these programs so we get the highest graduation rate possible,” Pash said. “We need to recognize the sacrifices they’re making because they believe in our students, in our schools.”
After the graduation ceremony, many spoke candidly about the challenges they faced in balancing their studies with other work and family responsibilities. For instance, Betsy Shecapio mentioned the weddings, funerals and fishing derbies she missed. But she still strongly recommends the program “to keep Cree culture and language alive.”
“I feel like it’s a big weight lifted off my shoulders,” said Shecapio. “I was thinking of my grandchildren and other children of the community. There are so many who don’t know how to set a snare. We’re facing a battle against modern technology – our lifestyles have changed a lot.”
Shecapio looks forward to becoming a Cree culture teacher this year, applying skills like the program’s land-based training in the bush. The students bonded during group projects like organizing last year’s Aboriginal Day festivities, creating a supportive family atmosphere.
Charlotte Dixon-Gilpin studied alongside her sister Melanie and is thankful teachers allowed her to bring her two infants to class. Already a pre-kindergarten and Cree culture teacher in Eastmain, she hopes to pursue a Master’s degree and PhD once she completes the B.Ed. she started this month.
“In my family we have a lot of teachers – I also felt I would become one,” said Dixon-Gilpin. “I see a lot of children speak English more than Cree. I’m very positive about upholding the language and culture – I teach them orally through songs and language.”
When Flora Otter begins teaching Cree language this year after many years as a culture teacher, she plans to motivate her students by having them share their short stories and artwork with the community. She believes getting more people to learn the language will inspire the next generation to become fluent speakers.
“I want to be one of the people who fight for the language,” Otter told the Nation. “In the past we used to talk Cree all the time – but it’s decreasing fast. We have to work on speaking Cree to our kids all the time.”
At the beginning of the graduation ceremony, a candle was lit to honour missing and murdered Indigenous women. The parents of Pikogan First Nation’s Sindy Ruperthouse spoke about their daughter, who has been missing since 2014. The graduates wore red under their caps and gowns.
“Most of the women made their own dresses,” explained Otter. “I made mine myself and put my heart into it because I was thinking of the missing women.”
Otter graduated on the Dean’s Honour List and was the student speaker at the ceremony, telling her colleagues that learning never stops. She was also one of two students selected by the CSB to attend the International Conference on Indigenous Languages in Victoria, BC, following the graduation.
“It was an eye-opener to go there because of the ways the other nations are keeping their language,” Otter said. “It was a privilege and I’m thankful that the CSB invited me to go. I’m going to do a presentation in my community to tell them what I saw – we have to share everything.”
A second group of Cree language and culture teachers begin their studies this month, and amid high demand for the program. Over 170 people applied for the 30 available spots.
“There’s huge interest in the communities so we’re really happy to see that,” said Pash. “I’m looking forward to enlarging the teacher training program but also broadening the scope and focusing on how that will affect student retention and engagement in our schools.”