'Something has to be done': Cree School Board asks Quebec inquiry to look at overcrowded housing

Identifying overcrowded housing as a key obstacle in the way of Cree students succeeding, says the Cree School Board at the provincial inquiry.

'Lack of space forces children onto the streets. Children arrive tired at school,' says Kathleen Wootton

Kathleen j. Wootton is the chairperson of the Cree School Board. She's urging Quebec to implement recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, especially ones related to housing. ( Radio-Canada/Thomas Deshaies)

The head of the Cree School Board is urging Quebec to implement the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation commission, particularly the ones relating to housing — saying overcrowded housing is a key obstacle in the way of Cree students succeeding.

Chairperson of the board Kathleen J. Wootton appeared Wednesday before the provincial commission that's looking into how certain public services treat Indigenous people — including police, justice, correctional services, youth protection and healthcare.

The inquiry was set up in the aftermath of allegations of mistreatment made by several Indigenous women against police officers in Val d'Or. It began in June of last year.

"Overcrowded housing risks putting academic performance and development of Cree children and youth at risk," said Wootton, adding that 20 per cent of homes in Eeyou Istchee, Que., are overcrowded. That's about 15 times the provincial rate.

"It is the root of several social and health problems and has a direct impact on the Cree School Board's ability to fulfil its mission."

Referring to many homes in Indigenous communities as "the house that never sleeps", the Cree School Board testimony identified this difficulty as the beginning of the snowball of roadblocks to success for many Indigenous children.

'We understand that it's not easy for a child to study in this environment. Something has to be done about that,' say Jacques Viens, a retired Superior Court judge presiding over the provincial commission. (Radio-Canada/Émélie Rivard-Boudreau)

"The lack of space forces children onto the streets. Children arrive tired at school and are less able to absorb lessons and to study," said Wootton, adding that it leads to underemployment which leads to economic, social, psychological and health stresses often experienced by low-income families.

"Over time these negative impacts on academic performance take a larger toll on Cree population."

Wootton said because of these challenges, the students are not able to reach their full potential.

'Something has to be done': retired judge

Jacques Viens, a retired Superior Court judge who is presiding over the inquiry, said the urgent need for housing has been a recurrent theme during the work of his commission.

"We have this problem in most [Indigenous] communities in the province," said Viens. "We understand that it's not easy for a child to study in this environment. Something has to be done about that."

Wootton said she does find reasons to be hopeful in the progress the Cree Nation has made since the signing of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement in 1975, adding that it's time to move forward and for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to work together.

"Being equal partners means we listen to one another. As a friend of mine likes to say, 'you are born with two ears and one mouth, so you listen twice as much as you talk.'"