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Community ᐄᐦᑖᐧᐃᓐ

First cohort of community-based education students graduate 

BY Patrick Quinn Jul 3, 2024

Cree graduates of the first full-time in-community teaching program in Eeyou Istchee recently celebrated their convocation at Montreal’s Bell Centre, the result of a fruitful collaboration between the Cree School Board (CSB) and McGill University. 

While this partnership with McGill’s Office of First Nations and Inuit Education (OFNIE) goes back over 40 years, the first full-time Bachelor of Education program for Kindergarten and Elementary Education was launched in 2020. It’s the same four-year program that is offered on campus except it is entirely community-based, primarily in Chisasibi, Waskaganish and Mistissini.

Without having to uproot their families to adapt to the significant challenges of studying in the city, students benefit from staying connected to their culture and local support networks. Several students questioned whether they would have completed the program without the encouragement of their family and friends.

“We got through this by encouraging each other,” said Constance Esau. “If someone said I want to quit, we’d say keep going, we’re almost done. Our family and friends played a huge role in this. I’m 36 and I just want to say it’s never too late to go back to school.”

Studying full-time in the Bachelor of Education program, Esau said it was challenging to manage the workload and budget expenses with the modest CSB allowance. Having newborns added an extra complication.

“I decided to get pregnant at a wild time, the first year the program started,” said Esau with a laugh. “It was challenging travelling, especially when I had to leave my kids. The first time I left my son, I cried many hours. Then the first time I left my daughter I cried too because that’s when her breastfeeding journey ended.”

While classes were held in Esau’s community of Waskaganish, instructor availability resulted in frequent trips to the larger group in Chisasibi and sometimes to Val-d’Or. Although courses generally alternated between weeks in-person and online, the Covid pandemic forced the first half of the program to be exclusively online. 

Working years as a waitress, Esau never dreamed of becoming a teacher until seeing a job posting at the Lodge. After starting in the school’s daycare program, she got a taste for teaching when asked to fill in as a substitute. 

“I realized I like working with children,” said Esau. “It was intense at times, but the teachers were very understanding and helpful. I’m going to be teaching Grade 2 in the fall. The ones I graduated with from Waskaganish, we’ve all been hired.”

Eastmain graduate Alice Gilpin earned her certificate in education in the culture and language program and now plans to continue with the bachelor’s program. While she had previously worked in Cree language development, Gilpin finished high school as an adult and never went to college.

Overcoming big doubts to enrol with a 4-year-old daughter, part-time online and in-community courses enabled her to complete her studies even as she gave birth to two more daughters. However, there were times she questioned whether she wanted to be taking care of children both at home and at work.

“I said I’m just going to keep going and see how this ends,” Gilpin recalled. “When I walked across the stage in Montreal for our graduation, I felt ‘Yeah, I’m ready to become a teacher.’ My children were my motivation because I’m also a role model. My girls are excited to start school to see me as a teacher.”

Gilpin fondly remembered her late grandmother Minnie Weetaltuk Gilpin, an Inuk woman who taught Cree literacy and created materials for the CSB. She’s grateful for the generations of trailblazers whose hard work developed the impressive Cree education system. 

With many winter journeys, canoe brigades and hunting expeditions under her belt, the land-based courses were Gilpin’s favourites. Cree instructors were proud to see more Crees take this journey to educate their own people.

“It connected us when we were out on the land because if one person didn’t know what to do, another person always said I can show you how,” explained Gilpin. “When we’re teaching at the school, we always encourage our students to work together, trust each other and treat each other with respect.”

The CSB’s unique partnership with McGill;s OFNIE has evolved over the decades from part-time courses offered outside of teacher working hours to increasingly comprehensive and tailored programs. Working together to develop course outlines, the university welcomes culturally relevant topics while ensuring provincial education requirements are met.  

Among the 28 students in the full-time program, 23 recently graduated while others who may have taken medical or maternity leave will likely graduate this autumn. To support students with passing the English exit exam necessary for the degree, the CSB offered online tutoring services and an in-person session of boot camp with intense grammar and writing. 

“Of course, it was our first cohort so there were some shortcomings,” said Charlene Erless, the CSB’s coordinator of professional development. “We listened and are making improvements as we go. Since Covid, Air Creebec doesn’t fly directly from Chibougamau to Chisasibi anymore and the younger generation doesn’t have vehicles yet.”

There are currently 154 Cree students enrolled in six CSB teaching programs, including a certificate in inclusive education for teaching children with special needs. Erless revealed there are discussions about soon offering an in-community master’s degree program for Cree teachers. 

The CSB launched its second full-time cohort in 2023. Erless would like to see more applicants from the smaller communities, noting the clear benefits of having more Cree teachers in schools for employee retention and improving the student experience. 

“They get to stay in their hometown and work with their people,” explained Erless. “You know these students very well. You see them when you go to the community store or arena. The students are more respectful, or they feel that sense of belonging in the school.”

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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.