Addressing Teacher Shortages in Cree Communities

Published: 21 December 2020

Nearly 500 McGill student teachers were placed in Montreal-area schools this fall, but did you know that more than 30 new Cree McGill B.Ed students are studying in their home communities in Eeyou Istchee, places like Chisasibi, Waswanipi, and Oujé-Bougamou? As part of OFNIE, (the Office of First Nations and Inuit Education), McGill Education has partnered with the Cree School Board to offer the Bachelor of Education First Nations & Inuit Studies, helping to certify more Cree teachers in Indigenous communities.

“This program is important because like the rest of the province, we are experiencing a shortage of qualified teachers,” commented Mary Bear, Director of Professional Development for the Cree School Board. She went on to describe the fact that the relocation of Cree teachers away from their home communities in order to pursue certification programs can pose many roadblocks. “We find that the community-based programs that we offer seem to be more successful and the retention rate is higher. The students don't have to uproot their families and they have more support when they are in the community”, said Bear. Most of the students in the program are not new to the education field; many of them worked in schools, daycares, or youth recreation settings with some have worked as substitute teachers.

Like McGill’s on campus B.Ed Kindergarten and Elementary program, the B.Ed FNIS focuses on preparing educators to certify them for teaching kindergarten and elementary classes, with an emphasis on second language and Indigenous culture. Already established in both Kahnawà:ke and Listuguj, Quebec, the program was extended to the Cree communities this semester with classes beginning online at the end of September. “Like our other programs, this was a result of an intensive collaboration with the Cree School Board”, explained OFNIE Co-Director Dr. Stephen Peters. “Students from nine Cree communities simultaneously follow courses and ongoing placements in community schools, cycling between the school environment and the university classroom environment continuously. Courses were intended to be delivered face to face but have shifted to remote delivery due to COVID restrictions.”

OFNIE adapted the regular semester system for the new Cree communities’ B.Ed FNIS for instructor hiring efficiency and to better align with students’ schedules and academic preferences. Instead of following courses concurrently, the students take one course at a time over a three-week period, followed by field placements in the local community schools.

“Yes, COVID had a big impact on our program,” responded Mary Bear when asked about the obstacles to starting a new program during the health crisis. “We were doing our recruitment during the lockdown in our region. When we found out that courses would have to be done online, we had to order laptops, then we had to orient our students to on-line learning which was foreign to them. In some communities, internet access is not very reliable, so we did experience setbacks, but now things seem to run much more smoothly. Yes, it was a real challenge starting a new program during the pandemic but we did it!”

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