She got out of the van, came towards me, quietly said, “I’m Frances”
Frances Ross, that is, the second recipient of the Retired Teachers’ Association of Manitoba (RTAM) bursary for a worthy First Nations student, chosen by University College of the North (UCN). The term bursary was used because this was not deemed to be a scholarship, to be “won” by the best candidate. This bursary through UCN is, rather, an opportunity for RTAM to give a hand up, not just a handout. It recognizes the many difficulties that Northerners, particularly First Nations Northerners, have in furthering their education.
Not that Frances is not a good student. She is incredibly eloquent; she has gotten very good grades throughout her school years. Grade school, high school, three years a teacher’s aide, then her UCN schooling towards a degree in education, all in Cross Lake, her hometown.
She came with her daughter, three years old, Cailee, a real sweetie.
Frances helped me set up my cell phone to use as a recording device. “I had to teach my Mom and Dad, too. They are not so young any more, like you. I had to be very patient.” Big smile.
We spent most of an afternoon together. Here are some snippets.
“All my life I have wanted to be a teacher. I can’t wait for school to open again.” Frances will graduate next year in education, from the Cross Lake UCN satellite program. She has 15 classmates. Courses are offered as the area’s needs are identified, if face-to-face instructors are available. Health care aide and heavy equipment operator courses have also been offered.
“My people have lived in this area since time began. I am First Nations Cree, you know. I have a treaty number.” She smiled. “There is no hospital here, so I was born in Winnipeg. But my Mom was born in a log house here, with my Kokom (grandmother) helping out. When I go for groceries the people around all speak Cree,” she giggled.
“I’m 30 years old now, a mom, and I still hear that little voice in the back of my head … ‘Frances, you must do everything well.’ When I was a little girl weeding the potato garden Mom and Dad were always encouraging me to do a good job. We would pick the potatoes, keep a couple bags, pass the rest out to neighbours and elders.”
“Of course the bursary means a lot to me”. There was no smile this time, her expression was quite intense. ”How can you ask that? I do not have a place of my own, you know. My daughter and I have to live with my parents, or sometimes with a sister, or another sister. Or sometimes with my boyfriend’s family, wherever there is room. I have to arrange daycare for Cailee. I have to get rides all the time. I have to share in the groceries. It is not that easy. Even so, if I really need, I know that Mom and Dad will always be there for me.”
Frances had some things she wanted to say to me as well. “Do you know about Cross Lake? That’s where I am from, you know. The river, the lake, the community are all very important to us. First my Mom and Dad, then my family, and then Cross Lake. I want to teach high school here, maybe Native Studies, and history. I want my students to understand, to know and appreciate our past.”
“Forty-nine years ago Hydro decided to use the lake as a reservoir, they put in a control structure, raising and lowering the water at will. We depended on fishing and trapping. Suddenly the fish stocks could not be found, the animals had different habits. Skidoos went through the weakened ice. The social core of the community was severely weakened.” Frances went on to say that there are still bad vibes about this.
I had earlier asked Frances from where the strength of her community came; she immediately replied, “From the women. The mothers, the grandmothers, actually all the elders, they bring the nurturing and strength that we all depend on. Since time began, remember?”
Last night there was a small elders’ gathering at the WhiskeyJack campsite, lots of stories, laughing, and a feast. Once each summer, all speaking Cree.
It came as no surprise that Frances took her cell phone to record the event. She took something else as well … her daughter, Cailee.
Guy Hansen is a member of Retired Teachers’ Association of Manitoba public relations committee.