James Bay Cree students and higher education: Issues of identity and culture shock (Quebec)

Christopher Darius Stonebanks
Dept. of Curriculum and Instruction, McGill University
July, 2005
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The Native peoples of North America still confront the challenges of lingering colonial cultural imperialism. One such challenge is that of Native education, and its unfortunate management by the European-descended political powers. Using tactics such as assimilation, segregation and integration, the establishment used schooling as a blunt tool to solve the so-called 'Indian problem'---that is, the assimilation of the Native population into the European way of life. The results were predictably tragic; the current education system is still perceived as a tool of colonization by many Natives.
After so many failed attempts, policy-makers are finally looking to return to the First Nations the education they need, not what North America thinks they should have. One example of this is the proposal to create an institution of higher learning within the Cree communities of Northern Quebec. This dissertation examines the possible challenges and benefits of such a project. It explores the relationship between Cree students and the current 'mainstream' education system by way of research, participant-observation narrative and the voice of the Cree themselves while interviewed. Since they must travel to non-Native communities to pursue higher education, Cree students typically deal with culture shock, alienation and no small degree of racism while studying. In addition a commonality of experience between the Cree and students of other Native communities while attending a 'white' school precipitates a pan-Indian/super-tribal perspective, which becomes an important factor in their world view.
Because this dissertation uses participant-observation and interview methodologies for research, and because the subjects of the observation and the interviews are Cree students, then it is necessary for this dissertation to first survey the topics of Pan-Indian Identity and Culture Shock and put them into context. In fact, a large part of the participant-observation narrative is that of the author integrating into a Cree community as an educator. This narrative essentially documents the author's own stages of culture shock, a mirror to that which the Native student faces 'down south' at college. These are examples of the real anxieties and challenges faced when immersed in a new and different culture. The Native perspective is provided by the Cree students themselves in interviews that were fortunately rich in narrative recollection. In addition to answering the standard interview questions, the interviewees offered their own anecdotes, observations and insights into their experiences within the 'mainstream' education system. The conclusions drawn in this body of research may go towards dealing with the legacy of Cree distrust towards an educational system possibly perceived as an imposition of a colonizing society, and to answering the real needs of Native students who are seeking to benefit from education, whatever its form.