Written by Vanessa Perri on 14.09.17

Sima Youssef is your outgoing, free-spirited, proud Montrealer. A recent graduate from Concordia University’s Political Science program, she likes to travel, meet different people, and simply enjoy embracing different cultures. During her time as a Concordia student, she took part in various NGOs and social movements, one of which included participating in the 1st and 2nd Annual March for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Sima is from Tunisian decent and it’s from traveling to Tunisia many times that her love for discovering and experiencing new things began.

Although Sima has traveled a lot in the past—including taking part in an agricultural project in Yaoundé, Cameroon during the summer of 2016—she recently took on a new experience right here in Canada. At the beginning of the summer, Sima accepted a tutoring and teaching contract with an Ontario-based educational outreach organization called Elephant Thoughts. She spent 7 weeks in the Cree village of Chisasibi, also known as “Chis,” located in northern Quebec, on the eastern shore of James Bay. Sima tutored and taught math to the students at James Bay Eeyou School and was also there to encourage student participation as well as attendance. We were fascinated by Sima’s experience and wanted to learn more about her experience in Chisasibi.

How did you find out about the organization that provided you with this unique opportunity?

I found out about it through a friend that I met in my program. She had worked for Elephant Thoughts in the past and she would always come back and talk about her experiences and it sounded so amazing. I had gotten other opportunities while I was in university so I never ended up going through with it. Once I finished school, I applied and got the interview.

What motivated you to go ahead with it?

I was ready for a new experience in Canada. I had interned in Central-West Africa and I had traveled to other places but I felt like I was ready to do some work closer to home. I was pretty interested in that line of work and I thought it was a great opportunity. The struggles of First Nations communities is something I had also studied in school and I’ve often campaigned for, so that was another reason why I was interested.

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We know that you’ve traveled to several different destinations in the past, but despite that, did you have any fears or worries about living in a Cree community that’s considered the largest—yet the furthest—in Quebec?    

Definitely isolation. I’ve lived in Montreal all of my life and most of the places I’ve been to have been big cities. Even when I interned in Africa, Yaoundé was a huge city, so I’ve always been used to big cities. Knowing that I was going to a small 4,000-people village—even though 4,000 is quite a lot—freaked me out at first. Also, since I was working with secondary 4 & 5 students, one of my other fears was, “Am I going to get along with them?” I remember what it was like being in high school and it’s sometimes hard to get along with teachers.

What was your first impression when you arrived to Chisasibi?    

I really, really liked it from the beginning! It’s not something that I get often. I was just like, “Wow there’s so much space!” I really liked where I was living and my living conditions. The school was literally a minute walk from where I was living so that really made it easy. It was great! The fact that everything was very close was the first thing that I liked the most when I arrived. Everything that I needed was in very close proximity. Coming from the West Island, I never get to experience that.

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What were the major challenges you faced while teaching and tutoring Math to the students at James Bay Eeyou School?  

Absenteeism. A lot of students didn’t come to school. I was lucky if I had half of my students come to school. The ones that did come were very good students and came to school regularly. Some weren’t so bad and others just didn’t come at all. The ones that didn’t come were good students too but they didn’t attend for different reasons unfortunately. Sometimes it was due to family problems and other times it was associating education with trauma. When you think about the history of education in First Nations communities, it wasn’t always a positive experience, especially with residential schools coming in. Depression was also a factor that contributed to the high level of absenteeism.

Another challenge was how all of the students were put into the same classroom. So there were no accommodations made for students who learn at a slower pace. Also, the quality of education isn’t the same up north, so the students aren’t as advanced as the students in the south, like in Montreal for example, yet the ministry exams are all the same for everyone in the province. It’s all the same from the south to the north of the province even though the resources and the materials aren’t the same for the students in the north. We had different levels of math in high school, but they don’t have that; they all learn the same level of math, which can be discouraging for some students.

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What kind of new experiences were you faced with during your time in northern Quebec either at the school you taught at and/or during your spare time?

Everything at the school was a new experience for me. Definitely the nature aspect of it all was new to me too. I was going on more hikes, checking out the sunset all of the time, going by the river, and just being surrounded by nature in general, which is different from being in the city. There was much less pollution and seeing the Northern Lights was crazy! That’s definitely something I wouldn’t see here. What was funny was that the Cree people are so used to seeing the Northern Lights and then there was our group that would freak out when we’d see them.

On a more political note…

More and more, different news outlets have been revealing the unfortunate truth about the reality of certain Indigenous communities’ living conditions and the basic necessities they lack—for example, clean drinking water. How would you describe your living conditions in Chisasibi as well as those of the community’s residents?

There’s definitely poverty in Chisasibi. There are poorer parts of town and most of them include government-built houses, which are really small and have not been maintained at all over the years. But there are some really nice places. The high school was really nice, the elementary school is beautiful; there’s a pool and a gym. My gym was super nice! The cultural centre is also really nice. The supermarkets are great too. So I definitely felt like my living conditions were good. It’s really not what people imagine it to be like. Also, I had running water but that’s only because when Hydro-Québec started constructing on their land and literally using their water, there were many lawsuits involved and the Cree people finally signed a settlement, which allowed them to have access to that clean water.

There is unemployment in Chisasibi and a lack of things to do, which can lead to depression and isolation. People do feel isolated there. In terms of groceries, it’s not like here where we have stocked shelves all the time. There, I had to know when the truck would arrive with the food or else I just wouldn’t get my food, since it’s such an isolated community, and the food definitely costs a lot more. Imagine Inuit communities that are even more isolated; food needs to be transported to them by plane. Living in Chisasibi made me feel privileged to have grown up and live in a city like Montreal.

However, if you look at other First Nations communities across Canada, for example in Alberta and Saskatchewan, it’s really bad; they are living in Third World living conditions in a First World country.

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Many Indigenous people had been calling out Canada 150 and many refused to celebrate it; did you witness this during your stay in Chisasibi?

No, actually because they didn’t really talk about Canada 150. It wasn’t really a thing for them. I wasn’t there during that time, so that’s probably why but no; there really wasn’t any talk about it. It’s probably because they didn’t really care that it was Canada’s 150th. Here, it’s shown everywhere because many people are happy to celebrate it, which might be frustrating for First Nations people, but Chisasibi is a Cree, homogeneous community. So unless a teacher brought it up, I don’t think they would be exposed to it. They don’t celebrate Canada Day or Saint-Jean-Baptiste for that matter since they have their own cultural holidays.

On a more positive note now, did you learn any Cree during your stay in Chisasibi?

Yes, I did! My students spoke in Cree among themselves, so I picked up on some words here and there. The two most popular Cree words were Jabweh, which means “cute” and Ouwah, which means “wow,” or it was used for something impressive. Their language is amazing!

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If you can, name me one experience you had where you felt like your work at James Bay Eeyou School was making a difference in the students’ lives?

That’s a hard question but basically some students would just sit there and not understand. They can stare at their paper and they wouldn’t understand during the whole class. So I would take the time to sit with those students after class and help them. Just being able to help that one student that doesn’t understand really makes all the difference. I was giving in a lot of my own time—time that was not paid for—to help students because I wanted to be there for them; it was all worth it at the end of the day.

What did you take from this one-of-a-kind experience?         

I learned a lot about myself. I learned that I actually enjoy teaching and being around students. I liked the age group that I was teaching but I discovered that I like elementary school students too! Education can be hard and just knowing that I can be there for them and help them understand was an indescribable experience.

Would you consider going back to Chisasibi—or any other Indigenous community—to teach English?

Yes, definitely! I didn’t want to leave Chis. However, I feel like I need to learn and experience more before I go back there.

Sima Youssef recently accepted another contract with Youth Fusion, where she will be setting up leadership and self-esteem workshops, but this time she will be working with the Mi’kmaq community in Gaspésie for one year. Sima would like to eventually go back to graduate school given that she has always been passionate about research. But for now, she has a new adventure that lies ahead!

Photos by Sima Youssef.

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