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Eeyou Ituun program graduates second cohort

by Patrick Quinn

The second cohort of the Eeyou Ituun (Cree knowledge) program graduated in Mistissini on January 29. The nine-month, 900-hour program was created by the Cree Trappers’ Association, the Niskamoon Corporation and the Cégep de St-Félicien to teach fundamentals of the Cree traditional lifestyle and living off the land.

While most of the nine graduates from different Cree communities were around age 20, the class also included some in their mid-30s and 64-year-old Sophie Coonishish Gunner. As a residential school survivor, Coonishish Gunner said it was important for her to learn culture knowledge she missed out on while attending school away from home.

“Sophie was there for the same reason that I was,” said fellow graduate Tyra Angel Tanoush-Fleming. “I’m there to learn my culture. It’s a great experience and you’ll love being out there learning a lot of different things you did not know. The Cree way of life is a sight to see.”

In development since 2014, the Eeyou Ituun program was initially planned to launch in early 2020 but was delayed by the Covid pandemic until September 2021. The CTA worked with Elders to determine the 15 competencies to be achieved, while St-Félicien pedagogical counsellor François Payette designed the syllabus and validated achievements.

Elders and tallymen do most of the teaching and course building and are compensated by the college equivalent to a teacher with a PhD. Payette will consult with them to clarify where they are in the program, informing them whether any guest speakers are invited and ensuring that all core competencies are eventually completed.

“Sometimes we’ll go to a Cree camp and the Elder will say we’re going ice fishing and setting nets and I’ll have to say we already done nets four times,” explained Payette. “Sometimes it’s a little tricky because some competencies have already been achieved and we need to work on the other ones.”

Payette estimated that 60% of Eeyou Ituun content teaches skills such as camp building, crafting tools and harvesting. Other parts are more science-based, including checking for ticks on moose hide, watching for diseased fish by comparing with reference books, or testing walleye bones at the lab to determine a specimen’s age.

Recent guest speakers included biologists from the ministry of natural resources (MRNF) and the CNG’s Nadia Saganash and John Paul Murdoch to discuss land-use negotiations. While there is spreadsheet work to inventory harvest details and certain tasks to complete with tools like GPS, most evaluation is done through individual meetings and observing students in action.

“We take the students where they are when they arrive and want to bring them further,” Payette told the Nation. “It’s individual goals. Students can’t be a tallyman in nine months – we want to build a toolbox so they know a little of everything that they can build from.”

Whereas the first cohort was based in Waskaganish with much classwork held in the community, this time all the training was done at various traplines in Mistissini, Waswanipi, Ouje-Bougomou and Wemindji. The course was divided into nine blocks of two or three weeks at camps, with a week or two off in between.

Without the distractions of modern life, students could better focus on the many tasks of camp management, such as securing sufficient water and firewood. A counsellor would provide occasional guidance and days would end with a sharing circle. While there were chilly nights and cold showers, students enjoyed being immersed in the traditional Cree lifestyle.

“I enjoyed my time in the bush staying in my prospector tent,” said Tanoush-Fleming. “I wish I could have stayed longer in the program – it passed by so fast.”

Others also suggested extending the program, even joking they wanted to quit so they could sign up again next year. Teachings from Elders like Abraham Etapp or Anna and David Bosum were recognized as particularly precious, illuminating bush knowledge, ancestral legends and a way of life from before the time of residential schools.

“I enjoyed their stories, what they went through and how the Elders view the land,” Tanoush-Fleming said. “It made me realize there’s a lot more material on the land we can use. In the past, we didn’t have ropes, so we used the roots of tree stumps to tie up a canoe or something.”

In teachings such as gutting a bear, students would be shown the entire process before trying it on their own, helping each other when someone forgot a step. When some students treated the program like a vacation, Tanoush-Fleming would focus on her own work, reflecting that “you’re there to learn what you want to learn.”

As an accredited program, Eeyou Ituun graduates earn an Attestation of College Studies diploma from the Cégep. Completion certificates were also given for individual courses so students could finish the program with résumé-boosting certificates in boat driving, bush kit training and gun safety.

Some of this year’s grads are interested in a new Cree Wildlife Protection Officer course launching at the college in August. Over 1,300 hours at Chibougamau and Cree traplines, students will learn material such as poaching investigations, land inspections and crisis management. The program responds to an urgent need for Eeyou Istchee Land Keepers and prepares students for similar game warden positions across the province.

While previous students have found jobs with the MRNF taking moose inventory in Zone 22 and coordinating a youth program at Mistissini’s Murray Lodge, some proceeded to studies like accounting. Working for the new Canadian Rangers junior patrol in Ouje-Bougoumou, Tanoush-Fleming said she looks forward to passing on the teachings she learned to new recruits.

“One of our teachers, Abel Jolly, showed us how to make a shelter when you’re stranded in the woods,” Tanoush-Fleming recalled. “I’ve been making that here and there sometimes. I’ve been going out on the land on my own time now since the program ended, setting rabbit snares and marten traps – I just got one this morning.”

Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Nation