Cree Bush Schools
Renewing Ties between Elders and Youth
The Eeyou or Cree are the indigenous inhabitants of the remote James Bay region of Subarctic Quebec, Canada. Traditionally they were nomadic peoples, ranging over an extensive territory to harvest goose, caribou, beaver and fish. Today, the Cree continue to hunt, fish and trap, but the population of 14,000-strong is settled in nine permanent villages on the seacoast and in the interior. The Cree have always possessed a deep connection with and respect for their land. They are renowned for their wise stewardship, managing the wildlife through a system of family hunting territories. For each territory, a 'hunting boss' guides decisions on when and where to hunt or trap, and what areas will be left to rest. These territories have been passed down through the families for generations.
Over the years, the Cree have lived with change through conversion to Christianity, settlement in permanent villages and compulsory schooling where speaking Cree was forbidden. But disruption was even more dramatic in the 1970s due to hydroelectric megaprojects. The most impacted community was that of Chisasibi, who saw hunting territories flooded by dams, their lands opened up by road construction and an influx of cash and material goods, including alcohol and drugs.
Chisasibi was plunged into a dark period. One elder, Robbie Matthew, observed: "In my own community of Chisasibi, the human toll has been high and children and youth have suffered greatly. Family violence, juvenile delinquency, alcohol and drug abuse, depression and suicide … this is the disturbing legacy borne by our youth."
To break the cycle of violence and self-destruction, older hunters and their wives began taking troubled youth out onto the land as a place of healing. By untangling young lives from their problematic village existence and initiating them to a hunting life, the men and women hoped to re-establish a connection to Cree tradition, to the people and the land, and instil a sense of identity and selfworth. That is how Chisasibi's 'bush schools' began.
Out on the land, young people are given a fresh start. Their tumultuous past is not mentioned, and they are received like family. As one elder explains: "I start by teaching them about respect, not just for the land and others, but also for themselves. The knowledge of the Eeyou Nation is based on a solid foundation of respect. We believe that humans are not separate from anything, not from the land, not from the animals, not from the seas and the skies, and certainly not from each other."
These 'schools in the bush' proved their worth, helping the community cope during difficult times. The Hunters & Trappers Association and the Cree Health Board became involved. There were tough cases that teachers and the community had given up on.
In an elder's words: "They come out on the land … and then after they're okay. They always come to see us. Sometimes we'll get a call from their parents, 'What did you do with my boy?' Well, I must have done something, but I don't know."
"It's a great honour for me to say that I've never lost a student yet to drugs or suicide. So the teachings must have an effect."
In the changing world in which they live today, the Cree know that one way of knowing cannot be favoured over another. Youth require both western knowledge, as well as their own traditional knowledge. But each set of knowledge must be passed on in its own way and has its own place for teaching. "Formal education can happen in the classroom, but traditional knowledge must be passed on to our youth out on the land where our people have always hunted, fished and trapped".
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Jean-Marie Dubois, © Le Québec en images, CCDMD
Daniel Bédard, © Le Québec en images, CCDMD