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Bush skills in the schoolyard: Cree culture teaching site opens in Waswanipi

'It's like we brought a cabin and a cookhouse from the bush and we bring all that into the school yard. It's easier for them to learn.'

'Now we can do some of the stuff we would do in the bush,' said teacher Flora Otter

Flora Otter demonstrates how to prepare a beaver, at the Cree Culture teaching site that opened last month in Waswanipi, Que. (Cree School Board)

In an attempt to better teach traditional skills — such as cooking a beaver or skinning a wolf — young students in the Quebec James Bay community of Waswanipi now have access to a Cree culture teaching site built right beside the community's elementary school.

The iinuu iiyihtuuwin chiskutamaachewinikamikw is made up of a cooking tent, a cabin, a prospectors tent, and a teepee, and it's where Cree culture teachers can bring the lessons to life.

The idea was to have a place to transmit the culture and values, because fewer and fewer young people had access to a bush camp. (Cree School Board)

"In class, it's a different environment. We can't really do anything, we just explain values," said Flora Otter, the girls' Cree culture teacher in Waswanipi. It was Otter who had the idea to build a culture site closer to the students.

"Now we can do some of the stuff we would do in the bush."

Otter thought it was important to have a place to transmit the culture and values, because fewer and fewer young people had access to a bush camp.

In 2016, she brought her idea to Robert Laperle, vice-principal for Rainbow Elementary School, and it slowly started to come together over the last year.  

The Cree School Board gave Waswanipi and all the Cree communities $40,000 each to improve Cree culture facilities. The Waswanipi band office and many local people also contributed, helping in the site preparation, construction and painting of the buildings.

A community effort

Laperle arranged with another local organization — the Sabtuan Regional Vocational Training Centre — to have students who were already taking a heavy machinery course to help prepare the site, as a class project. The land surveying was also done by other students at the vocational centre.

It was a real community effort, according to Laperle.

The opening of the site last month. 'It's like we brought a cabin and a cookhouse from the bush and we bring all that into the school yard,' said Robert Laperle, vice-principal for Rainbow Elementary School. (Cree School Board)

"It's a really nice project." said Laperle. "It's like we brought a cabin and a cookhouse from the bush and we bring all that into the school yard. It's easier for them to learn."

The Cree Culture teaching site was officially inaugurated in a ceremony last month. Laperle says one of the goals is to create a stronger connection between elders and the community's young people.

"Some of our elders have very bad memories of residential school or regular school and they don't want to come in for storytelling," said Laperle. "But now we work with the elders department and we want to bring them in to teach the students."

Laperle says 178 elders were invited to the inauguration and many of them attended.

With files from Corinne Smith

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