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Cree daycares integrate new culture and language programming

BY Patrick Quinn Apr 19, 2024

Childcare centres across Eeyou Istchee are undergoing significant changes to better reflect the Cree way of life. 

“Our main focus is that Cree culture and language is the basis of our programming,” said Kelly-Lee Pepabano, director of the Miyuuhpichinaausuwin Apatisiiwin department, which supports the region’s early childhood programs. “We wanted to ensure we don’t lose our language and promote it as much as we can.”

The department was formerly called Child and Family Services, but was often mistaken for youth protection and child welfare agencies. After consultation with the Cree language commissioner and the Elders committee, Cree consultant Lucie Salt suggested Miyuuhpichinaausuwin Apatisiiwin, which was officially adopted in January 2023. 

The transition was first envisioned about five years ago before the Cree Nation adopted language-protection legislation that is now being implemented. With children increasingly speaking English as their primary language, leaders realized the urgency of educational programming. The strategic shift coincided with a new funding agreement with Indigenous Services Canada.

“When we came into that funding, we realized we had the money to create materials, resources and tools that support language revitalization,” Pepabano told the Nation. “We created 10 new Cree books and other materials like a snakes and ladders game and flash cards with the weather, numbers and colours all in Cree syllabics.”

Pedagogical advisor Melissa Rodgers and her team began creating curriculum and training manuals for childcare centre directors, pedagogical counsellors, resource educators and Head Start program workers in 2019. Staff training began in January 2023. Rodgers also facilitated training for Cree students in the Cégep de St-Félicien’s childcare centre management program.

Consultations were held with Chiefs and Councils, Elders and childcare centre staff.  Information was collected from working groups at childcare forums held in 2020, the Chisasibi Cultural Heritage Centre and other resources. 

“We believe that children’s development needs to be strongly rooted in our Cree culture, language and identity,” explained Rodgers. “For children to have stimulating environments with connection with the land, our traditional ways, even food. Cree should be the language spoken every day in the centres to all children.”

Even children whose first language is English or French are first addressed in Cree before it is translated. Children’s books by local authors and illustrators have been very well received, promoting early exposure to syllabics that will be expanded upon in later schooling. Featuring familiar storylines about activities like snowshoe hikes and fishing, images are only accompanied by syllabics to encourage reading in Cree.

“At 4 or 5 years old they know it’s a word even if they don’t know how to read it yet,” said Rodgers. “Having stories about Cree culture, children can look at these books and see themselves. I would like to have another series of books in the future.”

Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty recently published her own children’s book. Minnie and Monica Make New Friends, named for her small hairless dogs, addresses bullying and is written in both northern and southern Cree dialects. 

New educational programming in childcare centres replaces guidelines from Quebec’s Ministère de la Famille. Educators monitor each child’s development by playing alongside them. They observe strengths and emerging skills, and meet with parents twice a year.

“What I love is that Cree Elders are integrated into our daily routines, to tell stories and do fun activities designed to increase the Cree aspect,” Rodgers said. “Every centre is at its own place in that journey. For example, in Chisasibi this winter, their pedagogical counsellors brought in caribou that women were cleaning.”

Childcare centres can apply to the federal Indigenous Early Learning Childcare fund to support activities and materials, such as ribbon skirts or shesheguin (baby rattles). Special programs officer Ann Marie Matoush has been touring communities to promote funding opportunities.

“Activities must be accessible to all children regardless of their ability or special need,” said Matoush. “Daycares can also apply for the community fund. They’re asked what outcomes are expected. We ask for progress and final reports. Once they’re approved, there’s a payment process to follow.”

Matoush has noticed the impact of language initiatives, saying her second child now in daycare is already speaking more Cree than her first. She will visit more communities and speak on radio to explain available funding.

Miyuuhpichinaausuwin Apatisiiwin is planning additional projects this year, such as training for each local board of directors. With online devices contributing to language loss, they may try leveraging technology to support Cree language and culture.

“We’re not done yet,” said Pepabano. “I’m proud of the work the team has put into this. They’ve just started and we’re still in the process of training them. It’s a totally different viewpoint on how to educate 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.