It’s a dream long deferred whose time seems to have come – a post-secondary institution in Eeyou Istchee. At this year’s higher education roundtable, leaders passionately argued for a CEGEP as an important step towards Cree self-determination.
The discussion was initiated by Chisasibi, the community with the largest Cree population and among the furthest from southern institutions. While a Cree CEGEP has been on the table for decades, the Cree School Board (CSB) believes the need for higher education closer to students’ families, language and culture is at a tipping point.
“When the JBNQA was signed, we gave ourselves the ability to chart our own course, and our education system is the key to building this future,” asserted CSB chairperson Sarah Pash. “It’s time for us now to push the boundaries that we’ve been working in, to broaden our mandate and reassert our jurisdiction.”
With the online event held on Orange Shirt Day – and shortly after Joyce Echaquan’s tragic death amid racist comments at a Joliette hospital – Pash opened with an emotional talk about the barriers to success students face when moving away for school.
“What we were shown this week was the way systemic racism allows and encourages racists within racist systems,” Pash said. “It encourages me to renew my commitment to this initiative and all the work we’re doing in our education system. It’s the only way we can make a more just and righteous future for all of us.”
Pash emphasized the culture shock and loneliness often experienced by students far from their homes. She sometimes hears about the difficulties of young parents have sending their children away from Cree culture and language. These obstacles help explain why, according to Statistics Canada figures from 2011, that only 48% of Indigenous people achieve a post-secondary qualification – compared to 65% of non-Natives.
“We have to ask ourselves, how many more could we reach if we had a permanent institution to offer? Being able to offer programs within our own communities would allow students to remain in the supportive environment of their own culture. Our population is growing at a rapid rate – we have no choice but to be innovative to meet our needs.”
The direct experiences shared with the roundtable by several current and former students seemed to confirm these obstacles. Jasmine Namagoose, for example, spoke candidly about countering her struggles with homesickness with the motivation of eventually returning to her community to help however she can.
“It took a lot of time adjusting to the city life, adapting to a new culture,” shared Daniel Rodrique, a university graduate from Chisasibi. “The 15-hour drive to Gatineau was hard on the body, an unnecessary stress. In Eeyou Istchee, I would focus on studies right away with my first language around me, meeting friends from the other communities.”
Preliminary results from the Adult Learning Needs Assessment (ALNA) shared by Nian Matoush revealed 85% of respondents considered returning to school but were discouraged by a lack of time and financial resources. Responses showed a strong preference for culturally relevant programs, demonstrating a shared goal of building a strong nation and private sector.
Roundtable participants looked back at the evolution of Cree education over the past 40 years to illustrate the vision. Education rights and funding have always been fundamental to the JBNQA and the source of numerous battles with federal and provincial governments over the years.
“My father taught me you can stick around the camp and get small game, but if you want to be a successful hunter you have to go farther,” recalled former Grand Chief Ted Moses. “I believe we have the numbers now to justify a CEGEP in the North that reflects the needs of Eeyou Istchee.”
According to Moses, these needs include aligning education with mining industry demands and improving math proficiency to develop more Cree doctors, engineers and architects. His support for this initiative gave a sense of the CSB coming full circle from its humble beginnings.
“We’ve tried to establish a solid education system from the ground up and reaching to the post-secondary levels,” explained CSB director-general Abraham Jolly. “That’s building success from a foundational standpoint. Now we’re better positioned to have this conversation and pursue it.”
Jolly compared the days when students would have to leave their communities for high school to this year’s record graduation of over 200 secondary students. While 71 of these grads were in Chisasibi, newly elected Chief Daisy House said she only knew of a few who were continuing with higher education right away.
House suggested many were still too young to manage the isolation and other challenges they would face in the south, where the nearest English-language CEGEP is 15 hours away. Having a nearby CEGEP as well as increased online options would allow them to continue their education while gaining valuable confidence and maturity.
A successful new in-community teaching program adapted for Cree culture, offered in partnership with McGill University, is evidence of the tremendous potential for this developmental direction. Future programs may target students interested in traditional pursuits out on the land.
“The ALNA shows the great effort that’s been put into defining where our needs are,” said Pash. “There is also work being done with Quebec that will ensure that we continue to be unchallenged in our right to be self-determining in education. We’ve begun analyzing the provincial education act to ascertain how it could be more supportive of our goals.”
As the CSB proceeds with an Education Act to ensure it remains responsive to the Cree Nation’s evolving needs, it hopes to submit a feasibility study regarding the proposed CEGEP to the province by the end of this year.
“We need a clear statement as a nation that we will do this our way, focused on the dreams and desires of our youth,” Pash affirmed. “We’re in an ideal position to do this. We’ve been working toward this very venture for over 40 years.”