North·First Person

College in the city didn't work for me. I needed to be in my community

Ethan MacLeod is one of the first graduates of a one-year post-secondary college preparation program being offered in the Cree territory of northern Quebec. "I saw it as a chance and opportunity," he writes.

The Iyeskuwiiu springboard program's mix of online, in-person and Cree culture helped me

A group of Indigenous graduates stand in caps and gowns smiling and celebrating their success.
Ethan MacLeod, on far right, after graduating as part of the first cohort of the Iyeskuwiiu Springboard to Diploma of College Studies Program. Also pictured, from left to right, are Erica Cheezo, Reshawn Iserhoff and Katelyn MacLeod. (Cree School Board)

This First Person article is the experience of Ethan MacLeod, a graduate of the first cohort of the Iyeskuwiiu Springboard to Diploma of College Studies program. 

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The first time I heard about the Iyeskuwiiu program, which means "to get ready" in East James Bay Cree, was when my mom told me about it in the living room.

A few months earlier, I had moved back home to Mistissini, a First Nations community near the southeast corner of Lake Mistissini, the largest natural lake in Quebec.

I tried to study a music program at Algonquin College near Ottawa, which I loved, but it did not work out for me. After three months in the city, I was depressed and isolated because of the pandemic. I was also homesick, and lonely. 

Back home at my parents, working a job I had no passion for, I was anxious to move on with my life and continue my education. 

The Iyeskuwiiu Springboard to Diploma of College Studies Program is a one-year, online and in-person program run by the Cree School Board and John Abbott College. I could attend most classes online in Mistissini and would get to travel to other Cree communities for some in-person Cree culture classes on the land.

I saw it as a chance and opportunity to continue my education and to prove to myself that I am capable. 

A young Cree father sits smiling facing the camera holding his 8 month old daughter.
Ethan MacLeod with daughter Nevaeh, who was born partway through his year studying in the Iyeskuwiiu Springboard to Diploma of College Studies Program. (Submitted by Ethan MacLeod)

After not completing my last program, I felt I failed myself. I saw this as a big challenge that I was ready for. I did not want to fail myself again. 

Being around friends and family in Mistissini helped me focus on my studies, which I am thankful for.

Our studies began at the beginning of August 2021 and ended in May 2022. Throughout the program, I made new friends who logged on from different Cree communities in James Bay. All the classes were done through Microsoft Teams, which I was fine and familiar with.

In the middle of the second semester, on March 8, I became a new father with the birth of my daughter, Nevaeh MacLeod.  Everything at the time was perfect. I was able to focus on my studies and take care of my newborn baby with the help of my family and my community. 

The Iyeskuwiiu program helped me a lot.

It helped me develop necessary skills to prepare me for post-secondary, while getting community college level credits and staying in my home community.

On-the-land Cree culture courses 

Part of the curriculum included learning about my Cree culture, which definitely takes the spotlight! I feel like that was an opportunity I could not take for granted.

The most memorable part of the Cree culture studies for me was skinning a beaver, because I hadn't done that before. It was a lot of fun! It happened at a camp near Oujé-Bougoumou, another Cree community. Each of my classmates had a different experience with the beaver. I skinned it, another gutted it, and another cleaned it. Afterwards, a camp worker cooked the beaver for all of us to enjoy!

A graduation photo of a group of young Cree people in cap and gowns from northerrn Que.
The full graduating class. Top row left to right: Erica Cheezo, Joni Moses, Marcus Voyageur-Sam, Ethan MacLeod, Aiden MacLeod and Prestin Shecapio-Blacksmith. Bottom row left to right: Troy Sam, Trinity Shecapio, Angie Spencer-Ottereyes, Katelyn MacLeod, and Reshawn Iserhoff. (Cree School Board)

It was also a perfect opportunity for everyone to get to know each other. It was a bit awkward at first because we always saw each other virtually, but eventually, everyone was comfortable. It was very important for students to be able to socialize and connect. 

Throughout my experience at Algonquin College during the pandemic, I was lonely because classes were online and I could not find a chance to connect with my classmates.

After completing this program and along with raising a new family, I now want to continue my studies. With my experience from both Algonquin and John Abbott, I feel more confident about my future and facing the challenges that are ahead of me, whatever they may be.

WATCH | The Cree School Board celebrates the first graduates of the Iyeskuwiiu program 

What I want to say to those that are interested in this program is to follow your own path. Sure you can plan it out, but unexpected things can happen. Positive or negative.

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Ethan MacLeod

Freelance contributor

Ethan MacLeod is Eenou from the Cree community of Mistissini in northern Quebec. He is one of the first graduates from the Iyeskuwiiu springboard to the diploma of college studies program, a new program offered by the Cree School Board and John Abbott College. He is also a new dad with an interest in music and writing and is now living in Montreal.