Northern Quebec elementary school says it's committed to doing better after racist incident
Students who yelled insults and threats at Cree women write letters of apology
The principal of an elementary school in northern Quebec at the centre of an incident where students yelled threats and racial stereotypes at an Indigenous woman says the school is committed to addressing the issue head-on.
Mario Tessier is the principal of the Vatican II elementary school in Chibougamau, Que., a non-Indigenous town located in Eeyou Istchee, the traditional territory of the Quebec Cree Nation.
On Jan. 10, a group of 9- to 12-year-old students from Vatican II yelled racial stereotypes, insults and threats at Paula Menarick, a Cree woman who was photographing some of her beadwork near a small pond behind the school. She posted about what happened on social media.
"For me as principal, respect is a priority and also sensitization to different cultural communities," said Tessier, adding that his school is one of the most multicultural in the region and has several Indigenous students, including Cree students.
He said the school is taking the incident very seriously and has reached out to the parents of the students involved.
"The types of things they were yelling … it's possible to learn them in the schoolyard, but they are also learned at home or in the sports club or with friends," said Tessier, adding the school always tries to include the parents in the educational process.
Menarick said she was called a pig, asked if she was an alcoholic, and was threatened with being shot and sworn at for more than five minutes by the students, and has some of it on video.
Tessier said three main young people were responsible for yelling the insults at Menarick, and about 10 students were in the school yard at the time.
He met with the students involved the day after it happened. He also said the school has an anti-bullying counsellor who is working with the students.
"We asked the children to write letters of apology with the help of their parents," said Tessier. Those messages were delivered to Paula Menarick at a meeting at the school last Thursday, the first day she was available.
"I accepted their letters and apology," wrote Menarick on Facebook after the meeting, adding she was pleased that the principal was taking the matter seriously.
"I talked about the importance of educating our children on anti-bullying, anti-violence and anti-racism," wrote Menarick, adding that principal Tessier agreed.
"I am happy that [the principal] took this matter seriously."
Grown-ups not present in school yard
Tessier offered an explanation for the incident. He said the young people were scared and believed a person was trying to light a fire behind the school, adding it was "altogether irrational" given the winter weather conditions.
He also said there were no grown-ups present in the school yard at the time, as Menarick had originally said. Tessier said the incident happened when classes were letting out and in the ten minutes before the after-school care monitors made it outside.
Tessier said his school has for many years organized a trip of the Grade 3 students to visit the Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute in the Cree community of Oujé-Bougoumou.
This past fall, it also encouraged students to wear orange as part of the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. Students also learned and sang a song about the importance of respecting other cultures.
There are also some Grade 6 Cree students who will participate in a variety show the school is planning for April and who have approached two Cree families to ask permission to include some Cree elements in the set.
Tessier said the incident shows a need for more programming to increase knowledge and understanding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, and committed to improving their educational efforts.
"We can certainly always do better. I look at the incident that happened … as an opportunity to encourage the organization of more activities," said Tessier.
An all-staff meeting is planned Thursday at Vatican II, where teachers and support staff will brainstorm other things that can be done to break down barriers and increase understanding, said Tessier.
At the time of the incident, Menarick also filed an official complaint with the Centre de services scolaire de la Baie-James school board. That investigation is still ongoing.