The Grand Council of the Crees

30TH Anniversary of the Cree School Board

Presentation by Grand Chief Matthew Mukash

Posted: 2008-05-27

Deputy Grand Chief Ashley Iserhoff and Grand Chief Matthew MukashWachiya/Welcome/Bonjour, to all students, parents and Cree School Board personnel. On this, the 30th anniversary of the Cree School Board I congratulate all who have been so dedicated over the years to make the Board a success. We are here today to honour those who are in this room and those who in the past contributed so much to our Cree School Board.

When we look at the accomplishments of the Cree School Board we have to remember what the schools in our communities were like before the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. The schools were too small run down and they were under-equipped. Moreover, schools were foreign territory to the parents, who were not comfortable there. There were almost no Cree teachers and the language of instruction was either English or French, depending on which school system was running the school - Quebec or the Federal Government. Even in their own communities, the Crees were not in control of the education of their children and Cree adults were not very welcome in the schools!

The very first major change in this situation was the Cree Way Project in Waskaganish that was started by Gertie and John Murdoch working with Dr. Richard Preston and which was made a great success with the able help of Annie Diamond-Whiskeychan, and later, Lucy Salt, Bella Petawabano, Daisy Moar, and Clifford Hester, to mention only a few of those involved at the beginning. This remarkable project brought Cree culture and language into the Cree schools by providing Cree curriculum materials for the primary grade students in the Cree language and in English. The materials from this project were later incorporated into the Cree School Board curriculum when materials in French were added.

With the signing of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement in 1975 we took back control of the education of our children, and control of the training of the Cree adult population.

We gave emphasis to the Cree language and culture in the schools and we closed down the residential school system that had taken many children from our families.

We closed down this system that too often subjected members of at least two generations of Crees to the cruelty of irresponsible managers working in cold institutional schools. As a result, these generations of Crees grew up outside of their families and removed from their culture. It was with the Cree School Board that we brought education back to our communities and the children back to their families, where they belonged.

Because of our efforts, we now teach in the Cree language and we now have courses in Cree culture in the schools. We also have a majority of Cree speaking teachers and administrators and the highest number ever of Cree students enrolled in post-secondary education.
This is truly a success and it has all happened in 30 very short years.

While we celebrate success, we must also think about the challenges that we face. Only 30 years ago everyone was dependent on the success of the hunt. Hunting was our main source of subsistence and we learned in the bush. Everyone, even those returning from residential school learned how to live on the land because that was the only way to make a living in the communities at that time.

Today in 2008, most of the Cree families hunt and fish, but less than one third of the Cree families are dependent on hunting, fishing and trapping as their main source of income. The rest of the families are working in businesses or are working for the Cree Board of Health and Social Services, the Cree School Board, local government or for the Cree Nation government or for other Cree entities.

Think of the great difference between the life of a Cree child growing up today in a Cree community and one growing up in the 1960's. Today a child sees people making a living working in offices, working as police officers, pilots, working in construction, or as fire fighters, teachers, working in restaurants, in health care, in forestry, mining and hydro electric development. Moreover, they see the world on television and on the internet. They are faced with a world of choices and opportunities.

The challenge that we face as their parents is to empower our youth by ensuring that they learn the skills and obtain the qualifications they will need to take up whatever career they choose. We must find ways to send our youth into adulthood and into the larger world with confidence in their values and cultural identity and with what they will need to succeed in the careers they choose to follow.

We must remember that we seized control of Cree education in 1975. Neither Canada nor Quebec gave it to us. The experience of the Cree School Board and of Cree Governance proves this point. We had to fight for every gain that we have made since we signed the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement in 1975. We fought for the construction of adequate schools and for the budgets to provide the education promised in Section 16 of the treaty.

It was not until 1989 that we finally got the operations and capital budget for the Board that was needed to deliver the education promised in the Treaty. Before that time the Board was always on the edge of bankruptcy as it did not have the funds to meet the needs and the education it provided suffered as a result.

Contrast this to the fact that Phase 1 of the La Grande Hydro Electric Complex was completed in the early 1980's and received the funding required to build it. Nobody ever heard that Hydro Quebec did not have the funds to complete a project. We must however also not forget that it was Quebec in 1989 that increased the budget of the Cree School Board while Canada withheld $300 million from Quebec that it owed to it under the 1975 Treaty for Cree education.

We must also never forget that it is only when we stand up and fight for our rights that Canada and Quebec listen to us. Our treaty rights to the funding of the Cree School Board were only finally settled in 1998 in a decision of the Quebec Superior Court that later withstood Canada's Appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada when it refused to hear the case. We can be assured that there will be other challenges from Quebec, Canada or others that threaten the Treaty rights that are the foundation of our society. We must be prepared to defend these rights.

Ask yourself: "What are the best protections of our rights and way of life?" The answer has to include our continued occupation of the land and the role of the Cree School Board in informing our children about their history and in preparing them to compete with others for the development of the resources on our lands.

Education is the key to the freedom of the Cree People and to a healthy and prosperous Cree Nation.

We must adapt and cannot always be limited by the separation of our people into 10 trading-post derived communities. In the past we were one people, the Eeyouch-Eenouch, living on our lands as the Eeyou Nation. It was only with the Indian Act that we became known as separate communities and this has continued under the Cree/Naskapi Act.

We now have an agreement with Canada and with Quebec, so that we can refine what we mean by the Cree Nation. We will develop a constitution under this arrangement and an agreement that will take us to the next step in the assumption of responsibility for our own business of government. By doing so we will open new career horizons for those who until the present time have been limited to working for their community governments. For example, someone who has the training and ability to plan community development in the near future will be able to help all Cree communities to plan their development. The same is true for all areas of government services from policing to child care, people in the communities will soon be able to begin to work with others through the Cree Nation Government in order to improve the services provided by the Cree Nation and the communities to the people.

The Cree School Board will be important in building the Cree Nation, as it will provide the training needed to implement a new level of Cree Nation governance that has yet to be seen elsewhere in Canada.

As we build the Cree Nation, there will be growing needs for all types of expertise and the Cree School Board and the other Cree entities and businesses will have to find new ways to cooperate so as to build our economy and increase our jurisdiction and role in the governance of our lands.

It is evident that we have difficult challenges to face. Rapid cultural change is primary among these, as it impacts our diet, health and ways of life, in the family and also affects our traditional pursuits on the land. It is however also evident that we must adapt to new technologies and to new ways of making a living from the resources on our traditional lands.

In our culture we use the word "entohouâ" which roughly translated refers to "using available means to make a living". How we do this will be defined and redefined in the future as it was in the past by our ancestors. The Cree School Board is one of our important modern means for doing this!

I thank you, the Cree and non-Cree staff of the Board and the managers of the Cree School Board for your selfless commitment to the education of our youth, to our adults-in-training and to the future of the Cree Nation.

Meegwetch, Merci beaucoup, Thank You!