Many in Mistissini will remember George Blacksmith from his days as principal of Mistissini’s Voyageur Memorial School – the first Cree to be a principal in Eeyou Istchee.
In those days, the summer student employment program didn’t start until the high school year ended. Unfortunately, college got out earlier and I had free time. George approached me and asked if I would like to be a substitute teacher. I gladly took the opportunity to mold some young minds. In one class two lads grabbed my arms while a third asked me if I liked his gang. I replied that my gang included George. I was released immediately.
It wasn’t that George was a violent or scary man but rather one who had the respect of the students. George told me that he wanted more Cree to be involved in the Cree schools. It was part of controlling education and making it a uniquely Cree system. He was a pioneer in the Cree School Board’s language and cultural programs.
Back in the 1990s, when I had brought Lyle Stewart up to visit Mistissini, George spotted me and insisted that we come to supper. It was an evening of laughter and discussions about the Cree – past, present and future. Lyle found that George was not a man to put on airs. He was simply one of the people you enjoyed being with. His heart was as big and robust as his smile. He shared himself with so many people in a way that both parties came away with more than they started with.
George taught but was always willing to learn. He had degrees in management and administration, but was the first Cree to get a PhD in education. His doctorate thesis was titled, The Intergenerational Impacts of the Residential School System on Cree Society: An Investigative Research on the Experiences of Three Generations of the James Bay Cree of Northern Quebec.
Later he would co-write a book with Philip Awashish called, Forgotten Footprints: Colonialism from a Cree Perspective: the Social and Psychological Impacts of Residential Schools on the James Bay Cree of Northern Quebec.
His work in education and his thesis were no doubt influenced by his own experiences in residential school after George was forcibly taken away from his parents at the age of nine. He believed that education is the most powerful tool Cree have to help themselves to solve their social problems, eliminate economic disparities and preserve their language and their way of life.
“This is the only way to combat the assimilation and colonial practices used on our people,” he once told the Nation.
Though it seemed he always had a smile, George had a more serious and thoughtful side. He believed in people, respected the Elders, loved the land and wanted a better life for all Cree. All of this and more made George’s friendship something to cherish.
My friend George Blacksmith passed away February 11. I will miss him deeply, as will all who knew him. We were all members of his gang.