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Aboriginal Heritage Interpretation students give gift of gratitude


Seven Cree students recently took some time out of their studies in the Aboriginal Heritage Interpretation program to present Fleming College with a special gift.

The students along with a course facilitator and an Elder were at the Sutherland Campus taking courses for a week. They are a long way from their home in Chisasibi on James Bay in Quebec. They presented Brian Baker, Vice President Finance and Facilities, with a sculpture created by Robbie Pachano, an artist in their community.

Made from found caribou antler, the sculpture depicts a bear and wolves that are delicately carved out of the antler.

Aboriginal Heritage Interpretation is a specially-designed two-year diploma program, tailored for the students from East James Bay. Since 2008, the students have been splitting their time between courses in their communities and courses offered through Fleming.

The approaches to teaching and learning in this program focus on both tangible and intangible cultural heritage and are based on traditional Cree ways of transmitting knowledge. There is a delicate balance between the teachings and knowledge of Cree community members and Elders, and the methodologies of museum work and practice.

Community Elders are very involved in the program – it has been implemented with their guidance. Areas of curriculum include interpretation and educational programming, preservation techniques, exhibit development, research and collections and archival management as well as Cree language courses, Aboriginal visual and performing arts, story telling, and traditional ecological knowledge.

As Program Coordinator Gayle McIntyre notes, the program is important to the students. As communities are so often struggling with social issues, celebrating their living culture and honouring their heritage empowers the people to be strong and feel proud of their identity. The community was relocated due to the Quebec’s James Bay power project, and many who are involved with the program are residential school survivors.

“The Cree take great pride in being a part of this program. They are looking to implement best practises for the care of their artifacts and the stories, songs, ceremonies and feasts that go along with those artifacts. As communities heal from the cultural devastation of the past, who is better equipped to care for their cultural heritage and pass it on to youth, than the very people who represent it,” says McIntyre.

Chisasibi has recently built a heritage centre that allows the community to have a dedicated space for cultural programs and exhibits. The centre serves as a keeping place for cultural materials and it is a comfortable environment for the generations to meet and to enjoy their living culture, with Elders able to pass on their knowledge. It will be a place where heritage activities can happen and where treasured objects relating to Cree history and traditions can be held and used for educational purposes. The centre was designed by local youth trained in architecture and resembles a traditional longhouse.

All of the students currently in the Aboriginal Heritage Interpretation program work at the heritage centre.

Chisasibi is located at the mouth of the LaGrande River and has a population of about 4,000. The community was formerly located on Fort George Island but relocated to the main land in the early 1980s due to the massive flooding associated with the James Bay power project. According to creeculture.ca, the move caused serious upheaval in the community. All of their traditional lands including hunting grounds and burial grounds were flooded and the hydro development caused elevated levels of mercury in fish, a main source of food for residents.

Opening the heritage centre and educating community members in heritage interpretation is one way Chisasibi is trying to heal its painful past at the same time as preserving its rich cultural heritage for future generations.

To view a map of where Chisasibi is located in Quebec, visit: http://goo.gl/maps/hMIvn

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