Dressed in a ribbon skirt made by her younger sister and moccasins, Rachel Martinhunter was the picture of a proud Indigenous graduate.
The 39-year-old mother of two was celebrating her graduation last week, as part of a unique effort by the Cree health board to help Cree employees advance into management.
It's called the Talent Development Program, and is part of larger effort centred on employee development called the Cree Succession Leadership Framework.
In Martinhunter's case, it has so far meant the successful completion of a certificate at McGill University. She was able to take the courses in the evenings online from her home community of Chisasibi, Que., located some 1,700 kilometres north of Montreal.
I was able to stay connected with my culture. - Rachel Martinhunter, Cree health board graduate
"I was able to stay connected with my culture. I was able to practice my culture. I was able to go to the bush," said Martinhunter, who is a mother of two boys, aged 18 and 12.
It was a stark contrast to her experience with post-secondary education a decade ago, when as a young single mom, she and her boys and her dad moved to Gatineau, Que., while she attended college.
She said moving had "caused a lot of stress" for herself and her boys. It also meant, Martinhunter said, the loss if the Cree language for her youngest son, Troy, which he still struggles with.
Martinhunter was one of 33 people graduating with either a certificate or a diploma in Health and Social Services Management from McGill University. In total there were 35 Cree graduates celebrated Thursday. In that group there have already been 23 promotions, say officials.
"It feels good … you feel like the future of your organization is in good hands," said Bertie Wapachee, chairperson of the Cree health board, who was on hand at a graduation banquet June 9, in Montreal.
"The dream is to make this organization the most progressive Indigenous health and social services organization in the country, but also the world," said Wapachee, in his speech to the graduates.
For some Cree health employees, the Cree Succession Leadership Framework meant going to school, but for others it can be special projects, conferences, webinars or replacing colleagues on leave.
Students felt supported
"The higher management [at Cree health board] was really, really supportive and really helping us out," said Helen Belanger Shecapio-Blacksmith, who was part of the graduation event.
She received her master's in public administration in an Indigenous context from the École nationale d'administration publique, l'ENAP. While she was studying Belanger Shecapio-Blacksmith was also working full-time as the director of Cree patient services.
"Sometimes we get in a rush because of the exams … they were really supportive and also taking care of us," said Belanger Shecapio-Blacksmith, adding she felt pleased to see all Cree talent in the room.
It was a sentiment echoed by the current executive director of the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay, Daniel St. Amour.
"I see the future leader of the Cree health board in this room," St. Amour told the graduates assembled Thursday.
He has said that he hopes to be the last non-Indigenous executive director of the Cree health board.
I see the future leader of the Cree health board in this room. - Daniel St. Amour, executive director of the Cree Board of He
"You are the future of this organization. How proud I am of all of you," he told the graduates.
St. Amour said having more Cree representation in management positions at the board will have impacts throughout the services offered.
For Rachel Martinhunter, her journey so far has meant a move into a more senior role from her job as an administration technician. She is now the coordinator of federal programs and services at the health board.
She and her father Smith Martinhunter say they are working hard to help 12-year-old Troy regain his Cree language.
And she says she's happy to see more Cree managers at the health board.
"We understand our people and it's our culture," said Martinhunter, adding she shares the dream to be part of the most Indigenous board of health in the world.
"That Cree [people] be able to be our managers," Martinhunter said. "We'd be able to speak in Cree."