Thank you your gracious invitation to have me join you today on this special graduation event.
As Deputy Grand Chief of the Grand Council of the Crees, I am asked frequently to make speeches in relation to special events, ceremonies and gatherings, in our Nation and indeed around the world.
Among the many speeches I make, perhaps those that I enjoy the most are those where I have the honour of addressing young people who have previously set upon an educational course of action and have achieved their goals by graduating, whereupon they are now equipped with the skills and knowledge to achieve additional goals in education, business or work. It gives me special pleasure today to be address this graduating class, composed of individuals who have chosen a very noble purpose, that of early childhood education.
The great Italian educator and humanitarian Maria Montessori wrote that “The most important period of life is not the age of university studies, but the first one, the period from birth to the age of nine.” As you have come to learn through your studies, the early years of a child are most formative for their development. With respect to children, the things we do, the lessons we teach, the love we provide, the care we bestow, and more, are all exceedingly influential to their success and lifelong potential.
That’s why the field you have chosen is so admirable, so very important to the Cree Nation, and for that we must all express a heartfelt “thanks”. Consider this simple fact: while children under the age of 10 in the Province of Quebec represent approximately 10% of the entire population, in Eeyou Istchee children under 10 compose a remarkable 24%. Given the birth rate, economic potential, social safety net, connection to culture and quality of life in our communities, we can expect for many years to come that children under 10 will exceed an entire quarter of our population. These facts and figures are interesting indeed, as they underscore what the Dalai Lama has said for many years: “Children are our greatest untapped resource”. While our children may be 24% of our population, they indeed represent exactly 100% of our future.
Your work as early childhood educators therefore places you at the fountainhead of their development, and endows you with special responsibilities to your community and to the entire Cree Nation. In a very real way, through your work as early childhood educators, you have the ability to help shape tomorrow’s leaders and tomorrow’s Cree Nation. Through the work you will do with young lives, you have the ability to lay the foundation of poverty or wealth, justice or injustice, good or hate, education or ignorance, industry or idleness.
The evidence is overwhelming that your work is perhaps some of the most important work that can be done today in the Cree Nation. The world’s greatest childhood educator and thought leader on the subject was a Canadian, Dr. Fraser Mustard, who died in 2011 after studying childhood education for over 50 years. Through his work, he proved that one of the most significant predictors of success at age 18 was the quality of communication, interaction, experiences, care and support a child received before the age of six. He proved that the child’s brain is so “plastic” during these formative years that we can literally shape its development – good or bad – through childhood interaction. We learned that the basic systems that manage our emotions – how we deal with stress, how we form relationships, how we feel about ourselves – do not exist at birth, and therefore must literally be “planted” and carefully cultivated in a child’s consciousness. This is the work that you will do – you are not early childhood educators; no, you are much more than that, you are human development specialists, and you have the power to shape a Nation.
Perhaps that most important lesson we learned from Dr. Mustard is that one person cannot do it all alone, whether that is an early childhood educator or a concerned and caring parent. Again, the research is clear – parents, working in collaboration with extended family, educators and the entire community, determine the life trajectory of young people. In this sense, the well-known African proverb is correct, it truly does take a community to raise a child.
To achieve our vision of a safe, harmonious, respectful and prosperous nation, we must therefore invest greater resources towards ensuring the prosocial development of our children, so that they grow to become the essential human capital - parents, community leaders, politician, educators, business owners, medical professionals, justice workers and more - that will write the next chapter in the remarkable story that is the Eeyou Istchee. As a nation, we must pay heed to this idea not through more discussion, but through action, as everything we need to know about raising successful children we already know!
We must, as a community of Cree people, re-engineer our systems of support to ensure parents have the help and guidance they need to raise happy, healthy children. We must better leverage the wisdom of our Elders, so that they can place the protective cloak of culture around young people. We must marshal our collective resources to create more child and youth friendly spaces – early childhood education hubs, vibrant day cares, well functioning youth centres – and surround children with staff that care, truly care, about their future success. We must, when we see a vulnerable child, not turn away but embrace that gift from God, that child, and provide whatever support we can. We must, as parents, deal with our own challenges and embrace our role as protectors and guardians of the spirit of young people. We must better support people like you, who have chosen a most commendable path where you give precedence to our children and create the conditions for them to flourish. And we must, as a Nation, govern ourselves and our actions with the belief that children are, without question, our most important asset.
Today, we live in open and dynamic world of instant communication, where young people present themselves to the world through Facebook, Twitter and other social media. These enabling technologies have changed our world, and they can change lives, for better or for worse. We must therefore be vigilant in how we use these technologies, to build-up children and youth, to empower them, to tell them that they are good, that they are worthy, that they can achieve anything they set their minds to, rather than destroy and diminish them. And we must, as a nation, address other issues of bullying, lateral and family violence which diminish our potential and create conditions of fear, not joy, in a young person’s life.
The famous philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote “Who you are speaks so loudly I cannot hear what you say”. By this, he meant that what’s most important is not what you say, but what you do, your character. I am convinced that together, one step at a time, through good deeds, good actions, and good character, we can change the world for the better and create the conditions that will assure the success and well-being of our young people.
Earlier I noted that others around the world want to hear our stories. For many people and groups outside our territory, we are held in high regard, because of the struggles we have overcome and the successes we have achieved through hard work, determination and never forgetting the lessons of our Elders. People want to learn from us, and when we share our stories, we learn too. My belief is that that through the work your will do now, and well into the future, the Cree Nation will add to its impressive list of achievements a transformation in the health, safety and well-being of children, so much so, that some of you as future leaders and childhood development experts will share your wisdom to the world. When we share, we make the entire world a better place, and receive the affirmation we all need to stay the course, to grow, develop and cultivate one of the greatest First Nations on the planet.
Again, I say thank you for choosing this path, and wish you all the very best success and Godspeed in your career.