Iohsennóntion Lahache always wanted to be a teacher.
Once she started working as a Kanien'kéha (Mohawk) language teacher at a local elementary school five years ago, she knew she wanted to further her education to become certified.
After four years of teaching during the day and going to school at night, Lahache is among 28 Kanien'kehá:ka (Mohawk) teachers from Kahnawake, south of Montreal to complete a bachelor of education degree in their community.
"These last four years have been busy, at times difficult, but most of all it was rewarding," she said.
"I am happy to take all of the teachings I have learned and bring it back to the community and my classroom."
The program is a partnership between the Kahnawake Education Center and McGill University to offer a four-year bachelor of education program in the community with local instructors and curriculum.
"It's for community, by community," said Bethany Douglas, post-secondary distance counsellor and program co-ordinator at the education centre.
The classes took place three days a week during the evenings, and course outlines were vetted by the education centre's curriculum team to make sure they were infused with its curriculum framework.
For graduate Raven Swamp, the structure of the program reinforced Kanien'kehá:ka worldviews and ways of being.
Both Lahache and Swamp learned to speak Kanien'kéha through the Ratiwennahní:rats Adult Immersion Program, and now teach in the language to elementary students.
"Many of our teachers in the past were first language speakers who possessed no teaching background yet their teachings live on through us," said Swamp.
"By doing this program in Kahnawake Mohawk Territory, it validates historical and traditional knowledge as a vital part of who we are."
Demand for more teachers
The demand for teachers in the community has been high, said Douglas, following a needs assessment of upcoming retirements.
Tehokwiráthe Cross joined the program in its third year, having completed a certificate teaching program prior. He is also a graduate of Ratiwennahní:rats and now teaches its new cohort of students.
"There's a definite need for people to join the field of teaching, not only for English elementary but specifically for language revitalization," said Cross.
While it wasn't always easy teaching during the day and then learning during the evenings on top of raising a family, Cross said the program gave him more skills and tools to use in his classroom.
"We were learning new methods and then I was able to apply them in real time because I was already in a classroom," said Cross.
McGill partners with other First Nations
Kahnawake is the second community to graduate students from the program, following a similar program in Listuguj for Mi'kmaw students. There is also a full-time program currently underway with the Cree School Board.
Stephen Peters, director of the Office of First Nations and Inuit Education at McGill, said it's important for the university to support and work with local Indigenous school boards to meet their goals and visions for their teaching bodies.
"The best way to address teacher shortages in the community is to support the development of locally trained and locally educated teachers," said Peters.
The grads were celebrated in Kahnawake last week, and some of them walked across the stage during McGill's fall convocation ceremony earlier this week.
For Lahache, walking across the stage was an emotional experience.
"Seeing everyone in their traditional outfits and the pride that was on everyone's faces, it was amazing," she said.
"Seeing so many Onkwehon:we (Indigenous people) walk across the stage is a reminder that we are still here and we are not going anywhere."