34 Cree teachers in Quebec graduate from community-based university programs

34 students from across Eeyou Istchee graduated from McGill University on May 30. It's the first program that allows northern Quebec Cree to learn from home to become teachers in their own community.  (Submitted by Alice Gilpin - image credit)
34 students from across Eeyou Istchee graduated from McGill University on May 30. It's the first program that allows northern Quebec Cree to learn from home to become teachers in their own community. (Submitted by Alice Gilpin - image credit)

Four years later and after learning from thousands of kilometres away, 34 Cree students walked across the stage as McGill University graduates last week.

It's the first time the Cree School Board and McGill University have offered programs that help students get their teaching licence from home.

"We [got] to be in our community with our families. We [didn't] have to sacrifice our time to go south and to get our degree," said Alice Gilpin, a graduate of McGill's certificate in education in its First Nations and Inuit studies program.

"I was raising newborns, I was struggling at university and I was trying to balance everything." said Gilpin, who lives in Eastmain with her three daughters.

Pursuing higher education in her home community gave her more support and less stress about the cost of uprooting her life to study in Montreal, she said.

Alice Gilpin started the certificate in education: First Nations and Inuit studies program back in 2019. She was raising her three daughters while keeping up with her studies.
Alice Gilpin started the certificate in education: First Nations and Inuit studies program back in 2019. She was raising her three daughters while keeping up with her studies.

Alice Gilpin started the program back in 2020. She was raising her three daughters while keeping up with her studies. (Submitted by Alice Gilpin)

"I had a really good support system at home. If it wasn't for my friends and family, I don't think I would have made it this far," she said.

Gilpin enrolled in the certificate program back in 2019.

Preschool and elementary students often told her they were happy to learn in Cree and that they understood more, she said.

'You wake up in your home'

Mary Bear helped develop the community-based teacher programs.

"Students are homesick when they're away from home. I remember when we were in residential school, this was really hard for us," said Mary Bear, who is a residential school survivor from Moose Fort School, Mohawk Institute and Shingwauk School.

Education is important for Bear. She retired from the Cree School Board in 2021 after more than 42 years as a teacher, consultant and professional development co-ordinator.

"I used to tell my children, 'you wake up in your own home, go to school, then come home', whereas when you're in your residential school, you're away for the whole year," said Bear.

Group picture of this year's graduates back in 2019.
Group picture of this year's graduates back in 2019.

A photo of this year's graduates back in 2019. (Submitted by Alice Gilpin)

For Bear, creating more opportunities for Cree to become teachers also helps students living in their communities.

"Non-native teachers do not understand Cree sometimes, but Cree teachers know when their students are bullying each other," said Bear.

Cree teachers often know their students' parents and are more aware of what is happening in their community, she said.

"When kids are having a difficult time or they lost a loved one, you're aware of all those things when you're a teacher from that community," said Bear, adding that knowing these things were helpful in creating support systems for their students.

Twyla Diamond said the bachelor of education program not only helped her, but also the students she was teaching.

from left to right, Twyla Diamond, Constance Esau, Alexandra Katapatuk and Dylanna Hester are all from Waskaganish, QC. They will working as teachers in their home community.
from left to right, Twyla Diamond, Constance Esau, Alexandra Katapatuk and Dylanna Hester are all from Waskaganish, QC. They will working as teachers in their home community.

From left to right: Twyla Diamond, Constance Esau, Alexandra Katapatuk and Dylanna Hester are all from Waskaganish, Que. They will be working as teachers in their home community. (Submitted by Twyla Diamond)

"If I were to do the program in the city, I would have to do my placements in the city. That was a big difference," said Diamond, who spent her field placement teaching sixth grade Cree students in Waskaganish.

There were also some drawbacks to learning from a distance for Diamond. Sometimes she would experience technical difficulties with her school laptop. She also preferred in-class sessions.

Despite those challenges, Diamond graduated from the bachelor of education program with honours.

"With the rising cost of prices down south. It was convenient for me to be at home" said Diamond. She already has a job as a teacher at Annie Whiskeychan Elementary School.

Gilpin, who graduated from the certificate program, hopes to help children learn their Cree culture in school, just like when she was younger. She also plans to pursue her bachelor's degree.

Gilpin aims to further her studies and enroll in the bachelor of education program next semester.
Gilpin aims to further her studies and enroll in the bachelor of education program next semester.

Gilpin aims to further her studies and enroll in the bachelor of education program next semester. (Submitted by Alice Gilpin)

"When I was in elementary and high school, we all were writing and reading and Cree. But when I look at it today I see a bit of struggle for students" said Gilpin.

"I'm very proud that I took the opportunity. I feel I can help my students to learn more about Cree language and culture" said Gilpin.