Preserving Identity: The St. Frances Cree Bilingual School

There is no stopping a mom on a mission, and that is where we’ll begin the story of the St. Frances Cree Bilingual School. Mothers who set out on a mission to secure funding for a facility that will continue to give their children a sense of proud, indigenous identity in a safe learning environment. The St. Frances Cree Bilingual School is a unique immersive indigenous language and cultural space. Four moms set out on a mission to secure funding to build a space that will uphold the mission. We met with two of the four moms who were part of the Parent Advocacy Committee that pushed forward the decade long initiative to secure funding for a new St. Frances Cree Bilingual School, that would replace the overcrowded facility as it currently stands.

Jayce Sutherland and Cece Baptiste of the Parent Advocacy Committee gave us deep insight into what it meant to support the sustainability of the St. Frances Cree Bilingual School. Jayce mentioned how the bilingual school was a space that connected the pieces that were missing in her life. When we talk about the tangible impacts of the Canadian Residential Schools, Jayce mentioned how her parents had a suspicion of brick buildings. These buildings for the First Nations Peoples symbolized being taken away from family and loss of identity in the most inhumane way. She was not afforded the opportunity to receive an education, like the one her children were receiving.

Cece Baptiste spoke about the importance of being seen. Her child had no identity issues in the school because everywhere she turned she was immersed in Indigenous language and culture, which gave her a strong sense of pride. Anyone who has had to acculturate to a different space, understands the challenges of fitting in and the relief visibility offers.

The Original Four

Elder – “Kohkom”

Kohkom, is Cree for grandmother. One of the unique experiences of Indigenous culture is the respect and reverence that is given to their elders. Elders begin meetings with a small prayer of blessing, which seems to align intention of those who are present. The St. Frances Cree Bilingual School has a “Grandma of the School”, Kohkom Shirely Arcand, who cares for the children and sews Ribbon Skirts when needed. There is a sense of communal wholesomeness, which is unique to schools that are embedded in community. As mentioned by the parents and administrators we met, learning here happens by being in community. Community is integrated in learning, and that is where deep learning occurs.

Preserving Identity

Walking the halls of this elementary school, the pride in indigenous identity was apparent. Indigenous culture and language was on display everywhere in the building, and what incredible pride that instills in a young person developing in this environment.

Indigenous headdress adorns the school library wall

Indigenous Knowledge

Land based learning is a part of the revitalization mission Indigenous Peoples have integrated into the reclamation process. Curriculum and instruction at the St. Frances Cree Bilingual School is designed to specifically fit the needs of the children and community. The stakeholders here include parents, students and elders, part of their mission is Indigenous STEAM, and the idea of “two-eyed seeing”:

“Etuaptmumk is the Mi’kmaq word for Two-Eyed Seeing introduced by a Mi’kmaq Elder from Eskasoni First Nation, Albert Marshall. It refers to learning to see with one eye the strengths of Indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing, and with the other eye the strengths of western knowledges and ways of knowing, and to learn to use both eyes together”.

The overwhelming approach of the St. Frances Cree Bilingual School is one that merges the Indigenous identity with 21st Century skills. Often, in Western professional spaces, people are asked to leave a part of their identity at the door. Nothing can be further than than the truth here. There is a deep integration of identity and learning, family values and learning, a strong emphasis on not putting students in boxes. This approach brings to light the power of visibility, even the architecture of the new facility will have an Indigenous flow. And just as moms spearheaded the mission to secure funding for the new facility, the space will be developed with families in mind. Families will lead the school and show them how best they can support the community.

Many of the “big rocks”, which are the foundational elements of the St. Frances Cree Bilingual School, include language preservation, religion and spirituality, engaging pedagogy, emphasis on teacher collaboration and growing a collaborative model.

The St. Frances Cree Bilingual School is set to be the largest Indigenous language school in the world. I spoke earlier about the concept of reimagining education, and in that case it was about immersive technological skills. The experience we had at this particularly space, showed us just how education can be reimagined to fit the needs and healing of a community. Thank you to the gracious community members, administration, and educators who allowed us into their classrooms for a transformative experience.

Fulbright TGC fellows along with parents and admin from the St. Frances Cree Bilingual School

**This website is not an official US Department of State website. The views and information presented are the participant’s own and do not represent the Fulbright for Global Classrooms Program, the US Department of State, or IREX.**

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