In Eeyou Istchee’s other big summer election, Sarah Pash was re-elected chairperson of the Cree School Board (CSB) July 28, edging long-time director general Abraham Jolly by a slim margin of 111 votes.
The candidates’ two home communities overwhelming supported their local champion: Pash took over 90% of the vote in Chisasibi while Jolly took 80% of Mistissini’s ballots. A total of 3,273 votes were accepted, according to returning officer John Henry Wapachee.
Pash’s campaign focused on empowerment through ensuring Cree control of the education system, implementing firm standards and performance targets, and ensuring accountability and transparency at all levels to meet the diverse needs of students.
“I believe that the position of chairperson belongs to the people,” Pash said on the campaign trail. “One thing I’ve loved about the past three years is spending time in communities, getting to know what matters to people. I promise that I will be there, available to listen to concerns, whatever is brought to me.”
Jolly has been director general of the CSB for the past 15 years, following four years as deputy director general, where he has developed strategic action plans and other initiatives to raise the standards of education services. His platform focused on increasing student engagement aligned with the original vision of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA).
“It is the vision we adopted, rallied behind, built, shaped, managed and celebrated,” Jolly posted on the eve of the election. “If you’ve paid close attention to school board politics, you know that there has been a change. Some of that change is good and has always been a part of our plan – digital learning, Cree history, the Cégep file. And some of it will dismantle the vision that we have held on to for the long term.”
Pash’s campaign also alluded to fulfilling the potential of the JBNQA by continuing to work towards ensuring self-determination in the CSB. She has met with Quebec’s education minister to push for a Cree Education Act, legislation that would provide full control of the education system.
To develop this local capacity, Pash emphasized the importance of training programs to enable more community members to become qualified classroom leaders. Besides addressing the region’s teacher shortage, it would also improve student engagement and retention.
“I hear all the time about teacher absence, students going a whole year without a qualified teacher,” said Pash. “Indigenous students need to see people like themselves in their classroom. They need people who understand the community, their families, the culture and the language. It’s our students being engaged and comfortable in our schools.”
Pash reported significant progress this spring in the development of a Cree Cégep. The Council of Commissioners passed a resolution for creating a department of higher learning that will be staffed in the coming months to implement post-secondary education in Cree communities.
Pash also advocated ensuring the right to education for all students by eliminating barriers to young mothers, victims of bullying, LGBTQ2S youth and those with food insecurity. She’s particularly passionate about providing resources to students with special needs so families don’t have to seek services outside Eeyou Istchee, as she has had to for her child.
“My belief is no parent should have to take their child out of their home community to have their needs met,” Pash asserted. “I will not waver from that – I’m still upset that I had to do it myself. All of our children have a loved and valued place in Creation and none of them deserve to be treated as any less.”
She believes the CSB has an important role to play in the identity construction of Eeyou youth through expanded language and culture initiatives, Cree history education and land-based programming. Pash suggested this could go a long way to addressing the bullying problem.
“We treat each other badly when we don’t feel good about ourselves,” Pash explained. “We have to pay attention into how we’re building up self-esteem among our children and what it means to embody our Eeyou values in everything we do within our schools. We have to build our children up, help them feel good about themselves so when they relate to others, it’s from a position of self-love.”
Addressing the low graduation rate and “dangerously high” absentee rate, Pash said a community effort is needed to ensure teenagers attend classes. She proposes implementing performance targets to raise the graduation rate to at least the provincial level and ensure students are prepared for post-secondary studies.
Pash described the sacrifices post-secondary students are making far from home, often with young families. During this challenging pandemic period, the CSB has provided extra allowances and even laptops for their children who are also studying.
While many schools across Canada were forced to close for extended periods, Pash is proud that CSB schools remained mostly open, swiftly developed online offerings and provided laptops to students.
Pash thinks all students should have access to educational technology like iPads and smartboards and hopes internet capacity can be improved throughout the region, especially in spottier areas like Whapmagoostui. She has been in discussions with the health board to address mental health issues and to nurture teaching collaborations with local organizations.
After a nine-day tour of communities to share her priorities for the CSB, Pash said the first thing she’d like to do is to extend the election period to at least a few weeks. Working up until the campaign began, she expressed gratitude to her son Jacob for creating her promotional material and driving her to her tour stops.
“This campaign has been a whirlwind,” remarked Pash. “It’s important for me to be present in the communities. We have begun some very significant changes – we got sidetracked a little with Covid but came through with flying colours. We’re going to move forward with strength, conviction and all our resources to make sure we meet the needs of our students.”