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Cree School Board launches Department of Higher Learning

BY Patrick Quinn Jan 10, 2024

As more options become available in the region for the growing number of Cree students interested in post-secondary education, the Cree School Board has launched a new department dedicated to higher learning. 

The department will manage the post-secondary programs currently offered in Eeyou Istchee and those yet to come. So far it includes the Cree Teacher Training Program and the Iyeskuwiiu CEGEP-level springboard program. 

“We’re in the midst of negotiations to form my department, which will determine our plans for programs we want to develop in the next five years,” said director Darlene Cheechoo. “All the programs we are developing will emphasize Cree culture and language as much as possible – that’s a real high priority for the CSB and our department.”

The land-based component of the Iyeskuwiiu program supports student success by strengthening Cree identity and confidence. The current cohort recently completed assignments at Anna and David Bosum’s traditional camp near Ouje-Bougoumou.  

These programs attract more applicants each year – at least 80 people expressed interest for the latest teacher training program. Offered in collaboration with McGill University’s Office of First Nations and Inuit Education, the CSB presently has a four-year Bachelor of Education and shorter certificate programs that qualify Crees to teach in Eeyou Istchee schools. 

“We do a lot of research of potential partners for programs we’re trying to develop and who will be a good match in terms of our values and the services that can be provided,” explained Cheechoo. “John Abbott (College) has been a great partnership (for Iyeskuwiiu). They make a lot of efforts to work with us to make sure the cultural support is there for students.” 

The new department also works with Cree entities to align educational offerings with regional priorities and in-demand career paths. One partnership is with Eeyou Ituun, a 900-hour-long program from the Cree Trappers’ Association, Niskamoon Corporation and Cégep de St-Félicien that involves Cree Elders to transfer traditional bush skills for land stewardship.

In 2019, the CSB surveyed every community and multiple stakeholders for an Adult Learning Needs Assessment to guide its program development. CSB chairperson Sarah Pash said it showed “many people wish to pursue post-secondary education but are unable to leave their communities for a variety of reasons.” 

With most interested in nursing and teaching programs, followed by vocational work like mining and construction, the CSB partnered with the Cree Health Board to align the local workforce with the region’s expanding needs. A springboard program will launch in August to help students obtain the necessary training to apply for healthcare studies. 

“There’s going to be a brand-new hospital and new health centres but there are needs right now for Cree physicians, lab techs and all areas of the health sector,” Cheechoo said. “They just need to get their foot in the door through these pathway or springboard programs. We have plans for other programs that haven’t been approved yet.”

Cheechoo said they’re also trying to create a Bachelor of Social Work program and other offerings that upgrade the skills of frontline healthcare workers. Cheechoo’s department hopes to develop resources to raise the success rates of Cree student applications. 

Cheechoo added that there’s a need for secondary teachers in math, science and specialty courses as well ways for Crees with a bachelor’s degree in education to become principals and fill other leadership roles.

The Higher Learning Department aims to complement Sabtuan Adult Education Services (SAES), Post-Secondary Student Services (PSSS) and other CSB departments to provide more options for students to pursue their education journey within the territory. To support the transition toward urban studies, PSSS is transforming its offices in Gatineau and Montreal into more of a “home away from home.”

Meanwhile, PSSS is changing its name to Niimuutaan, which is the traditional satchel carried during hunting expeditions, to symbolize the “transformative journeys” undertaken by students. The student lounge, library and study areas will be renovated to become more inviting for classwork, relaxation and social interaction. 

Plans include expanding their library to include more books about Indigenous issues, self-growth and titles that encourage reading for pleasure. They also intend to make the space more family-friendly, offering more Cree-language learning activities for all ages, in order to stimulate connections made during recent open houses, orientations and study-tip sessions. 

Winter festivals will be held in the coming months in Montreal and Ottawa-Gatineau, with popular family activities, prizes, networking opportunities and “epic food.”

The Niimuutaan PSSS department regularly collaborates with colleges and universities to enhance their Indigenous relations and aid the transition to higher education – along with financial assistance, academic support and guidance counselling.

While the new Higher Learning Department develops strategic programs, it continues to prepare for the major goal to establish a post-secondary institution in Eeyou Istchee. 

“Ultimately part of our plan is for a Cree CEGEP in our territory, all depending on the dominoes to fall into place,” said Cheechoo. “There will be multiple people involved in it. We’ve already started some groundwork that we need to update with current data for feasibility. We’re in a sensitive period of our growth.”

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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.