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Cree language and culture keepers celebrate McGill graduation

Nearly 60 students graduated, many of them with a teaching certificate in First Nations and Inuit Education, Language and Culture from McGill University’s Department of Education

Close to 60 Cree students celebrated their graduation from McGill University with a convocation in Pikogan, Que., Saturday. (Susan Bell/CBC News)

A room full of Cree students wearing red celebrated their graduation from McGill University Saturday in Pikogan, Que., with a lot of emotion, pride and a deep commitment to strengthening the Cree language and culture, one child at a time.

They were part of a large graduating class of close to 60 students — more than 45 of them with a 60-credit teaching certificate in First Nations and Inuit Education, Language and Culture from McGill’s Department of Education.

Many of them, like Reggie Hester of Waskaganish in Quebec, are already working as Cree language and culture teachers within the Cree School Board.

“What I like about teaching is when I see how happy the kids are [when I] bring them in the camping areas,” said Hester, who has worked as a culture teacher for nine years.

“That’s what I like, when I see them practicing their culture.”

“We supported each other.” Married couple Karen Matches and Reggie Hester of Waskaganish in Quebec graduated together on Saturday. (Susan Bell/CBC News)

Hester and his wife, Karen Matches, graduated together Saturday.

“I feel proud and I’m happy that we were able to finish it together,” said Matches, adding they supported each other through the challenges.

Certification to teach elementary school

The McGill program is offered on a part-time basis in Algonquin, Cree, Inuit, Mi’gmaq, Mohawk and Naskapi communities throughout Quebec, in collaboration with local school boards.

“We at the faculty of education are very, very proud of partnering with you,” said Dilson Rassier, dean of the faculty, who made the trip north to officiate the convocation.

“I feel very privileged to be here.”

Graduates receive Quebec Ministère de l’Éducation certification to teach at the elementary school level in Indigenous schools.

Grads wore red

Under their caps and gowns, the vast majority of the graduates were wearing red, in honour of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

A candle was lit at the start of the convocation by the parents of Sindy Ruperthouse, a woman from the community of Pikogan in Quebec, who has been missing since 2014.

Edna L. Neeposh of Nemaska was one of many graduates who wore a red dress in honour of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. (Susan Bell/CBC News)

Mary Bear, co-ordinator of the McGill language courses for the Cree School Board, says she is happy to see so many people graduate and is especially happy to see so many young people among them.

“People say that the young people aren’t interested in the culture. But I don’t believe that,” said Bear. “I think they are, and they are very passionate about the language.”

They are people like 32-year-old Jeremiah Mistacheesick, who is a Cree language and culture teacher in the community of Wemindji.

“I knew this program encouraged a lot of my language,” said Mistacheesick. “I could use my language and speak and write and read in my own language.”

Elma Moses, deputy director general of pedagogy for Cree School Board, says more Cree language teachers are urgently needed. (Susan Bell/CBC News)

Shortage of Cree language teachers

Mistacheesick encourages other young people to choose Cree language and culture teaching as a profession.

That is something Elma Moses, deputy director general of pedagogy for the Cree School Board, would also like to see.

“The need is very urgent because in the province of Quebec there is a shortage of teachers and there is a shortage of Cree language teachers,” said Moses.

Both Mary Bear and Elma Moses say they are encouraged after they received 170 applications for 30 available spots for Cree language and culture teachers, that are set to begin their studies in July.

Becoming a teacher has been a long-time goal for Demerise Shecapio of Mistissini, Que., another one of Saturday’s graduates.

Becoming a teacher has been a longtime dream for Demerise Shecapio, right, pictured here with fellow graduate Louise Coon. (Susan Bell/CBC News)

“This was my dream since I was a little girl, to become a teacher,” said Shecapio, who studied alongside the woman who raised her, her aunt Louise Coon.

“I wanted to be a role model for my daughter here. It was very special for me,” said Coon, adding that both she and Shecapio will be going back to school to get their Bachelor of Education degrees at McGill.

More than a few of the graduates Saturday said they plan to continue with their studies at McGill.

There were also several graduates Saturday of a 30-credit language literacy program offered through the same partnership between McGill and the Cree School Board.

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