Vying for the Chair

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Gordon Blackned, George Blacksmith, Alfred Coonishish, Reggie David Neeposh and Donald Nicholls are in the running to become Chair of the Cree School Board.

Coming from various academic and career backgrounds, each has a different perspective on how things should be run and brings something unique to the table.

The Nation magazine managed to get in touch with each of the candidates and asked them the same three questions. This is what they had to say.

Gordon Blackned

Gordon Blackned is the current Cree School Board (CSB) Chairperson. In the past, he has taught school for seven years for both Indian Affairs and the CSB and was a school principal for five years. He has also been Director of Education Services, a Pedagogical Counsellor for adult education and he has spent the last 11 years of his life as the Director General of the CSB.

Outside of the field of education, Blackned has also been a Band Councillor and Deputy Chief for Waskaganish, a CRA/GCCEI board member and a board member of the Cree Housing Corp. He has also sat on numerous local committees serving as president for some and member for others.

Blackned is currently a board member to the Cree Nation/Abitibi-Témiscamingue Economic Alliance, and a member of the Cree Nation Governance Working Group.

The Nation: What do you see as the three greatest accomplishments of the CSB?

Gordon Blackned: There are a lot of great accomplishments. The one that stands out the most is the fact that the CSB has provided services to the Crees for 30 years now. In that 30-year span, the CSB has done a lot in many areas of the education system. It has evolved into an organization that is recognized by First Nations groups elsewhere as a leader in the area of mother tongue Cree and cultural instruction.

Through the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, we had a right to provide a teacher-training program for Crees to be able to teach at our schools and this program has produced more than 200 Cree teachers. It has also administered its own post-secondary program which started out in 1978 with less than 10 students attending colleges or universities. Today we have 400 post-secondary students. This is an accomplishment in itself.

What is also worth mentioning is that the CSB has a very high employment percentage rate of its own Cree people as teachers, support staff, professionals and management personnel. These are important areas that the CSB has managed to perform in over the years. They are great accomplishments. We are constantly told that we are way ahead by other Aboriginal groups in terms of the scope of the organization itself. Its mandate is something that is very much respected by other First Nations.

TN: What do you see as the three most important issues facing education in Eeyou Istchee?

GB: The three most important issues facing education in Eeyou Istchee are, were I to place them in order, the issues regarding school and student improvement. These two issues go hand-in-hand when it comes to providing a quality education that focuses on the delivery of classroom instruction. Who delivers it and what they are delivering are two very important aspects.

It therefore calls for a number of things. One is an overhaul of the curriculum model that is presently in use. Secondly, a careful review of the standards that the students are expected to come away with at the end of their schooling within the CSB. The third would be the supervision of instruction, and by that I mean the evaluation of our teachers and putting mechanisms into place where we can monitor the progress of both the teachers and the students.

The second major issue is the question of the language of instruction. Language is one of the most important aspects and identities of any nation. Due to the fact that our Nation has embraced the dominant society at large, the aspirations of today’s Cree parents are to see their children succeed in both worlds with the acquisition of a second language; French or English are foremost in achieving this. The implementation of Cree as a language of instruction since the early 1990s has always met its challenges and its successes.

Today, due to the recent CSB review, this report now deems the CSB to refocus on the language of instruction for our schools. There are different models out there right now that are being experimented with by some of the schools. We have also mandated a group of language experts, linguists who have studied Native languages and people who have worked with the CSB on the Cree language to do an assessment on what kind of language scenarios we need to employ without neglecting Cree and incorporating in there the second languages in order to improve second-language acquisition.

The third important issue is school support for learning. This particular area is of primary importance for the success of our children. Certain measures need to be put in place to ensure that stakeholders of education are contributing resources in supporting the schools. Not only resources but their own personal contributions inclined in putting schools in the process of learning. Parents, grandparents, local organizations and other community groups are too distant from the schools. The school should be something that the community feels belongs to them, where their children can learn effectively through their support, however they want to contribute through activities and events or even being part of school life.

There needs to be more involvement at a local level for schools to develop the capacity to enhance student learning.

TN: If you become the Chair of the CSB, what would be your first priority? How would you deal with it?

GB: My first priority as the incumbent would be the Communication, Accountability and Follow-Up for School Improvement (CAFSI) report, the education review I worked on for the last three years. There are a lot of studies that have gone on in that process and a lot of consultations.

The three points that I have identified here are part of that process and I think that is where my focus would be immediately. At the same time, I would be going into the communities to inform the public about this study. I don’t think a lot of people know what has transpired with this study, what has come out of it and what we need to do at the CSB.

I also feel strongly that we have a lot of capable qualified professionals within the school board who have the capacity to manoeuvre improvement for the overall educational situation we are currently facing in Eeyou Istchee.


George Blacksmith

George Blacksmith’s dissertation is currently under review for his Doctorate of Philosophy-Major in Education from McGill University. He also possesses a Masters in Educational Administration and Policy Studies, a Bachelors of Education and two other certificates.

He is fluent in Cree and English and has spent 13 years as a school principal. He also taught secondary school for four years, was a coordinator of Cree Programs and a coordinator of Post-Secondary Programs.

Outside of that, Blacksmith was also the Director General of Cree Regional Authority for two and a half years and he has extensive experience as a consultant.

Prior to starting his doctoral studies, he was once the Director of Community Development for the Council of the Cree Nation of Mistissini.

The Nation: What do you see as the three greatest accomplishments of the CSB?

George Blacksmith: I see infrastructure, decentralization of responsibilities to a Cree community and the adoption of the principles of education as the primary successes of the CSB.

The first challenge of the CSB in the early 1980s concentrated on the infrastructure of primary, elementary and secondary schools and comfortable teacher residences. With the availability of the essential facilities in the Cree communities decentralizing the head office and related services from Val-d’Or to a Cree community was in itself a major accomplishment. The second undertaking involved the recruitment of qualified personnel to fill in a large number of vacancies from the regional offices, including school administrators and teachers.

Third, in a joint meeting on Dec. 6, 1988, the Cree Chiefs and the Council of Commissioners adopted the “Principles of Cree Education.” This essentially established the policy direction for the CSB to adapt its educational program delivery according to the norms (Régime pédagogique) established by Quebec’s Ministère de l’Éducation, du Loisir et du Sport (MELS). Stemming from this meeting, a specific mandate was issued to the CSB to establish a language policy which would maintain a strong emphasis on Cree language and Cree culture according to Section 16.0.10 of the JBNQA.

TN: What do you see as the three most important issues facing education in Eeyou Istchee?

GB: I remember in 1993, we, the school administrators, informed the educational leadership that most of the students in the CSB were not achieving the objectives of the MEQ programs. We also pointed out that the factors influencing these results were not being sufficiently addressed by the educational leadership.

A second concern raised by the schools made reference to the inconsistent implementation and monitoring of instruction throughout and that the language of instruction policy adopted by the CSB was not consistently applied in the schools. These inadequacies influenced the educational leadership to eventually consider a review with a possibility of restructuring these programs.

Third, I believe that the most compelling message from the concerns identified above points to the urgent need to look at the two fundamental value systems in education that continue to undermine the social and educational development of the Cree child.

TN: If you became the Chair of the CSB, what would be your first priority? How would you deal with it?

GB: My first priority would be to review and restructure Cree instruction by delegating responsibility to qualified educators, concerned parents and Elders from each community to assist Cree programs. My second priority would be to mandate Education Services to research and establish the context and general direction for restructuring and adapting Cree knowledge into the formal instructional program and to develop a CSB-wide system to monitor and evaluate progress at all levels of instruction.


Alfred Coonishish

Alfred Coonishish spent four years studying Business Administration at Concordia University in Montreal and has taken numerous courses in administration and management.

Coonishish spent 23 years at the Cree School Board between 1980 and 2008 as a community education administrator. He has also served as the CSB’s Deputy Director General for two years.

Running for CSB Chair has brought Coonishish out of retirement. Since he retired, he has been devoting five months of the year to traditional Cree activities.

Coonishish is married to Hattie Blacksmith and has four adult sons: Jason, David, Richard and Emmett. The Coonishish family resides in Mistissini.

The Nation: What do you see as the three greatest accomplishments of the CSB?

Alfred Coonishish: The first and foremost is the way the CSB has organized and structured itself since 1978. Although the reorganization and restructuring of the Board has to occur every so many years, the CSB is meeting the challenges that reflect the changes in the education system. The CSB has taken on Cree education in elementary, secondary, special education and post-secondary education. This is an enormous accomplishment.

Secondly is the acceptance and embracing of the Cree language and Cree culture in our school curriculum. From my perspective, these are very important to our Cree Nation and we must keep and preserve them. We must continue improving the teachings of the Cree language, culture and values.

Thirdly, the CSB has negotiated intensely for the funding of its operations and capital projects. We see the results of these efforts in our schools. There are new schools being built and existing schools have been renovated. The same goes for the teachers’ residences. The construction of the Vocational Training Centre in Waswanipi is one great accomplishment in itself. I commend our people especially for this project.

TN: What do you see as the three most important issues facing education in Eeyou Istchee?

AC: It is evident that the quality of education is a major issue. We are not producing enough graduates in the secondary sector. There are many factors contributing to the low rate of student success. A few examples are student absenteeism, parental involvement, hiring of qualified teachers and the low reading levels of students.

The Cree language and culture education is controversial. My personal thoughts on these programs is that we need to keep them because we do not want to risk losing our language, culture, values and identity as Cree people. But we need to improve the teaching of these programs and I have great ideas on this.

Lastly, it is very important that the CSB offer alternative education. We know that not every student will succeed in an academic program. In fact, we have many school dropouts and these students need to pursue other avenues of education, such as vocational programs, trade schools or hunting-and-trapping programs. Christian education, which is also academic, is being demanded in some communities. We must find ways to integrate these kinds of programs into our schools or contribute financially towards them. Our people want these programs.

TN: If you become the Chair of the CSB, what would be your first priority? How would you deal with it?

AC: I waited for the CSB to do something about the low student success rate for quite some time now. We had many meetings, workshops, recommendations, decisions and the implementation of some. To improve the success rate of our students and to deal with the dropouts by offering other avenues of education is my first priority. In my campaign for Chairperson of the CSB, I have mentioned creating a Cree Advisory Committee consisting of Crees in the field of education. This committee would have a strong voice on major educational issues. They would act as advisors to the Chairperson and the Council of Commissioners. It is time to implement ideas and recommendations that we made in the past and in the present. Communities will be consulted.


Reggie David Neeposh

Reggie David Neeposh is the current Vice-Chairman of the Cree School Board and also Vice-Chairman of the Board of Compensation/ CREECO Inc. & its subsidiaries.

Well-educated, Neposh holds a Bible College Diploma, a Certificate in Computerized Accounting, and two College Business Accounting & Business Administration diplomas. He also acquired a Bachelors of Education degree.

A member of the Oujé-Bougoumou Cree Nation, Neeposh has been married for 25 years, has three children and enjoys family life, hunting, fishing, sightseeing and meeting new people.

The Nation: What do you see as the three greatest accomplishments of the CSB?

Reggie David Neeposh: I have been a commissioner; I am in my third term representing my community of Oujé-Bougoumou. When I came back from college, having completed my Bachelors degree in education, I was appointed Vice-Chairman of the CSB. As Vice-Chairman, my mandate was to negotiate the 2009 five-year agreement. This was one of my greatest accomplishments.

I was a core negotiator with Bill Namagoose of the Cree Regional Authority. We also had our own team that worked with us within the CSB. We reached the agreement with the Ministère de l’Éducation, du Loisir et du Sport (MELS) and Indian and Northern Affairs. I really enjoyed this process, it was quite a learning experience and it was also challenging for me. In terms of this work, my approach was to be cooperative in these negotiations and this is how we accomplished this. I was a key player along with the team that was involved in this.

The second one is the Communication, Accountability and Follow-Up for School Improvement (CAFSI) report which came through the office of the Director General. This was a real eye-opener for me and it was also part of the Mianscum report. I would like to commend the people who worked on the Mianscum report. I only saw it when I came in but I personally feel that the timing is right to do this turnaround for the Cree Nation.

The last accomplishment for me since I became the Commissioner and Vice-Chairman was the Chisasibi Elementary School. I had not known that they had been talking about it for the past decade but I had the opportunity to persuade the MELS Deputy Minister to go to Chisasibi. I met the people at their community assembly and that was very beneficial to me. To bring in the minister was also encouraging as he was then able to see what we had been talking about. This made a real difference. I am very happy for the people of Chisasibi as we were able to deliver what they requested. This is all about a cooperative approach in working with the people.

TN: What do you see as the three most important issues facing education in Eeyou Istchee?

RDN: There are several. I will touch upon the ones that I feel are most important to me. First is the CAFSI report. I don’t want to see this sit on the shelf again like the Mianscum report. In there, we have a strategy team for the coalition on the road ahead. For me, accountability is very important, particularly in regards to communication. You need to work with the people at a local level.

Another major issue in Eeyou Istchee is the Cree language instruction program, it is a major concern. I can see that some want it and some don’t. Personally I support it but more resource people and funds are needed.

We also really need to focus on the dropout rate. During the negotiations, I saw the statistics and it is very high in the Cree Nation. We are not any better than the rest of Quebec but it is alarming. I believe that developing a partnership in education is probably the best approach between the local communities and the Entities. For example, Air Creebec, a Cree-owned business. When I look at their human resources, we do have Cree pilots but very few Crees employed. I feel that our youth should be focusing on technology and Air Creebec is open to this. There is employment available and this is the kind of partnership that I am talking about.

I really appreciated the fact that Wemindji had a recreational after-school program with hockey, gym activities and swimming. The Wemindji academy was able to offer this unique program. I like this kind of involvement and it is the kind of thing I would like to see happen elsewhere.

We even have college dropouts and we need to focus on them too.

TN: If you become the Chair of the CSB what would be your first priority? How would you deal with it?

RDN: My first priority would be to move to the community and live with the people there. I am currently in the community of Oujé-Bougoumou but there is an office for the Chairman and a residence. I have already spoken to my wife and family about how I would have to move to be where the administration is.

I would also like to get the CAFSI report rolling, this is important to me. There are already people working on the road ahead and I don’t want this stalled. This will really improve the quality of education in Eeyou Istchee. I not only want to see this implemented but I would also like to see strategies developed based on the report’s recommendations in regards to school operations and parents.

One of the things I have seen and experienced is the lack of parental involvement. I would like to visit the communities and the schools to talk to the people and find out what the problems are. One thing that is always brought up is remuneration and there is always an argument as the bylaw states that we are volunteers. I would like to work this out.

I also think that we need to implement an annual general assembly that is specifically about education. I would really like to know where people want to go and this is where we could deal with all of the issues, the services, parental involvement and social issues, such as bullying. These are all things that I would like to get some direction on.


Donald Nicholls

Donald Nicholls is currently pursuing his Doctorate in Juridical Sciences. He already possesses a Masters of Laws from the James E. Rogers College of Law at the University of Arizona in Tucson, a Bachelors of Civil Law from McGill University Law School, a Bachelors of Law from the University of Toronto Law School and a Bachelors of Arts in Economics from the University of Western Ontario.

Nicholls is presently working as the Interim Director of Justice and Correctional Services for Eeyou Istchee. From 2005-09, he worked as the political attaché to former Grand Chief Matthew Mukash.

Prior to his life in politics, Nicholls was an Adjunct Professor of Law at the University of Arizona and the Northern Tribes Initiative Coordinator within the university. He was also a Vine Deloria Jr. Senior Fellow at the James E. Rogers College of Law.

Within the Cree Nation, Nicholls has worked as an Education Consultant and a Cree Regional Justice Coordinator. He resides in Mistissini with his family.

The Nation: What do you see as the three greatest accomplishments of the CSB?

Donald Nicholls: Indigenous groups worldwide are seeking control over their own education system. In 1975, the Cree people gained control of their education system. Since the founding of the CSB, we have made remarkable strides in building schools in each community, adult-education centres and vocational centres. Over the years, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of Crees who are teachers, support staff, administration and management. Control over education that the advances we make in leadership that we take in education within our communities and society are based upon our vision, goals and values. It was an incredible step forward for us as a People, and it has led to the CSB being one of the hallmark institutions of Aboriginal peoples taking control of their own destiny. It has led to the preservation of key parts of our culture, identity and the delivery of valuable services within our communities.

The post-secondary program is an example of an incredibly successful program. As a student who has attained undergraduate, professional and graduate degrees, I know what is required to be a successful student. The support I received from the post-secondary program was instrumental for me. It offers the opportunity for many students to pursue their dreams.

The next step would be to bring programs to our communities to open up opportunities for youth and community members. With some initiative, we could provide more accredited courses on a regular basis which would help community members work towards college and university degrees within their own communities. We need to focus on the students in order to give the right support and have policies in place to create an environment for success. Successful students should also be mentoring new post-secondary schools.

Another accomplishment of the CSB is its ability to continue to grow, achieved through the continued expansion of our funding and capital resources. This growth in resources has allowed it to fund educational programs at all levels and to integrate vital programs for the preservation of Cree language and culture. We need to effectively focus our efforts and resources for student success and the culture of community within our schools and programs.

TN: What do you see as the three most important issues facing education in Eeyou Istchee?

DN: The first issue that is facing education in Eeyou Istchee is that not enough students are graduating. This is the quality of education we are delivering today. Our success rate is low. Parents feel they have to send their children outside of the community system or start their own school system. We need to continually focus on the quality of education. We need to provide the best education possible for the students.

We need to talk to students. They have gone through the local and post-secondary system and can determine where we can improve and build upon our future. We need to have a level of transparency and accountability in education to assess and provide better services.

One area we can improve upon is breakfast programs in our elementary schools. These programs are provided in many countries to start off a child’s day with a good meal. It not only improves on performance in the classroom, but can be used to teach nutrition to children and help address health concerns like diabetes facing our Nation. This is an example of the schools being about more than academic learning but a more holistic approach to education. Equal opportunity means not falling asleep or being hungry while trying to learn. More students may even come to school as they will get a meal. Small steps can lead to great potential. We need to give everyone a chance at a future.

Second, regardless of the quality of our teachers, curriculum or physical facilities, progressive learning outcomes are unattainable if school environments are not safe, so therefore a good Safe Schools Program must be a centrepiece of our education strategy. Today our school and community environments are much different than they were not long ago. There are increased incidents of violence, bullying and drug use, and absenteeism by students and teachers is at a high. We need to be assured that our children will be in a safe environment.

In the short term, we need people who have training in counselling and discipline. Longer-term solutions need to be about teaching character and core values within the classrooms so everyone can be treated with respect and dignity. Respect, honour and compassion are values which can lead to an environment where learning can be the focus, and these values will spill over into the community.

A third issue is balance in education. We need to see the schools as an important resource within each community. If we increase the value within our lives, we can increase the benefit it has upon our community. For example, if economic development is a priority, we ought to incorporate into regular English-language curriculum lessons in business-plan writing and business communication. If we are offering shop classes, then we ought to make them about outboard motors, snowmobiles and four-wheeler repair, therefore building capacity in our community and complementing our lifestyle.

What we teach needs to be real to the students, it needs to engage them. We need to prepare all our students with an understanding of our history, our agreements and the organizations we have within the Cree Nation. We need also to make the schools about learning for all community members so we provide an environment for learning whether it be traditional or contemporary knowledge.

TN: If you become the Chair of the CSB, what would be your first priority? How would you deal with it?

DN: The first priority of our education system and the leadership needs to be to put our students first. We can focus on many things, but the mission of the CSB needs to be to inspire, educate and empower students, to ignite a passion and love for lifelong learning. We need to share a common vision and goal to work together towards improving success within our education system.

To implement a vision on putting students first does not require studies or a multi-year plan of action, we need to orient or re-engineer our policies, procedures and programs in a manner that puts students first. What we invest into our students today will be realized when they are leaders and workers in the future. So their success, and the development of a strong sense of community with values, is an investment into our future and achievement within our communities as well.

Programs that inspire and teach students of any age need to be offered. Whether we offer them in early childhood programs or in adult education, it will open doors to a world of opportunity and a passion for learning.


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