A partnership between the Cree School Board (CSB) and John Abbott College has created a Cegep-level springboard program that allows Cree students to begin their post-secondary education from their home communities in Eeyou Istchee.
The unique one-year program is called Iyeskuwiiu (in English, “get ready”). It helps students prepare for college and university while reinforcing their Cree identity through a combination of customized online courses and a land-based physical education component.
“It’s a program for Eenou, created by Eenou,” said Nian Matoush, the director of Sabtuan Adult Education Services (SAES).
“We wanted to work with the community to develop the program. It’s a good way for community members to figure out what they want to do with post-secondary education without having to commit to the usual pathways of relocating out of the region.”
The course content and program structure were developed through consultations with working groups from both youth and Elder councils. Information and research from the Cree Cultural Institute guided the creation of courses such as Cree Language, Power and Influence in Eeyou Istchee and Sub-Arctic Literature.
“We developed the content to reflect Cree history, the Cree experience and Cree worldview,” Matoush told the Nation. “They’re very Cree-centric, not only to mirror Cree identity but help students strengthen their Cree identity. A critical part of being successful in post-secondary is being confident about who you are and where you come from.”
Cree interest in post-secondary education is increasing, but students are often reluctant to leave their communities and support systems behind. This program enables students to acquire Cegep prerequisites and valuable study skills without having to also manage the culture shock and systemic barriers that are commonly encountered in the South.
“Students delay post-secondary education because they don’t feel prepared to leave their community,” explained Matoush. “It’s not just culture shock but the life skills that help them integrate into post-secondary life. They’re calling and asking for more culturally oriented programming – it makes sense they would hesitate to leave if their interest in building their cultural identity is so high.”
Applications are open to anyone who has graduated from Secondary V or is on track to graduate by the end of the year. However, registration for 2022-23 closed March 22 following significant interest for the 30 available places. Students participating in the pilot project this year enthusiastically recommended the program.
“Each course is amazing,” said Iyeskuwiiu student Ethan MacLeod. “I strongly believe this is the decolonization of our Indigenous minds. It teaches you about who you are, helps you improve communication and writing skills, and gives you that extra time to figure out what you really want to do when you go to college. It’s the perfect opportunity.”
With credits transferable to any English-language Cegep in the province, students complete eight assigned courses over two semesters plus a choice between Cree or French as a second language. Students are supported with an allowance, a loaned laptop, and access to counselling services – as well as study space and tutoring.
“We thought this would take a couple of years to build before it became a regular part of our programming,” said Matoush. “This pilot project has been so successful just from word of mouth, which wasn’t entirely expected.”
Most courses are offered online, but Iyeskuwiiu also provides guest lecturers from the communities to lead life skills workshops. Students get a break from computers during the five-day intensive cultural physical education sessions taught on the land by Elders each semester.
“They follow the principles of how skills are traditionally taught: demonstration, observation and then practice,” Matoush explained. “In the fall it was offered in Ouje-Bougoumou and in the spring it’s going to happen in Chisasibi, creating that balance of representing the inland as well as the coastal culture. I believe this time they’ll be preparing a moose hide.”
Two of the program’s five teachers are Cree and two others have experience teaching in a Cree context. SAES worked closely with John Abbott College on teacher recruitment, including hiring some who are currently teaching in a similar springboard program the college developed with Nunavik’s Kativik School Board called Nunavik Sivunitsavut, which has been offered in Montreal since 2017.
“They’ve been able to bring together all these people that make our program that much better,” said Matoush. “It’s a springboard but also a bridge between different programs – they’ll already have been introduced to that environment.”
John Abbott College has a longstanding relationship with CSB’s post-secondary student services and has received numerous Cree students over the years. Matoush appreciated that the Cegep was willing to support Cree education experts in designing this program while meeting Education Ministry requirements.
The interest in the program has the CSB thinking about how Iyeskuwiiu could be expanded into a wide range of programs, helping students access fields that interested them. For example, an engineering sector focus might include higher math and sciences courses.
“We want to help students dream into whatever area they’re wishing to specialize in by making sure they have those prerequisites,” Matoush added. “We’re working hard to diversify the programs we give. This program is the first step for us to give as many opportunities to as many community members that are out there.”
by Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter