Cree School Board support staff, managers and administrators were welcomed to a workshop with the storytelling skills of learned elder, and signatory to the James Bay Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA), Dr. Philip Awashish.
"I think it's important that we all hear the story of why we are here, what is our purpose," said CSB Director General Abraham Jolly in his introduction to Dr. Awashish, who spoke for about 90 minutes at Le Crystal Hotel in Montreal November 27, 2018.
"CSB has a fundamental role in Cree Nation-building,"
"Our school board is foundational to what the Cree Nation will look like in the future," Jolly continued. "CSB can be one of the most effective organizations, not just in the Cree Nation, but anywhere. Is that possible?" he asked the dozens in attendance. "Can we do that? Why not?"
Dr. Awashish used his unique skill of storytelling, effectively placing the contemporary work of the Cree School Board against its historical backdrop. He spoke about pre-treaty days, using visual presentations of the villages that began to form in the 1960s. He told a powerful story about what "home" means to him when he explained that, as a young child living on the land with his parents, he would begin to question his mother each year when the ice had gone out and she began packing.
"Where are we going?" the young Awashish would ask and his mother would say, "We are going to Mistassini to visit."
"We're going home."
The family would spend the two summer months in what was then called Mistassini, and then, when she would start packing again when the weather began to cool, he would ask, "Where are we going now?" and she would answer him, "We're going home."
So when the government arrived to escort that same young boy to a residential facility in Moose Factory, he only knew one "home," and it was the land. He then talked briefly about his experience in the school and having his moose-hide mitts and mukluks taken from him. He never saw them again. His hair was cut, and he was given other clothes to wear. He was also forbidden to speak his language.
No wonder he chose to use his formal education, obtained at his own family's insistence once he returned from residential school for good, to fight for social justice and to rebuild the nation that he'd known as "home."
He told his first-hand account of the signing of the JBNQA, the reactions to different events, and the long road to implement what turned out to be the first modern treaty in Canada's history.
"I think it's important for students to recognize their language is something we had to fight for," he said.
While he says the challenges faced in the 40 years since the agreement (which effectively established the Cree School Board) have not been what the original signatories expected, the initial vision of a rebuilt Cree Nation, with Cree values and identitiy at its core, remains.
As far as education, Awashish says its importance is paramount.
"CSB has a fundamental role in Cree Nation-building," he said. "It has serious challenges to overcome, but, when you think that it had to build from the ground up, it has come a long way, and it will take a long time still to build the capacity we need."