home NEWS The Life of a Teacher in Eeyou Istchee: The Collection of Mary Mitchell by Sarah Small, Young Canada Works Intern

The Life of a Teacher in Eeyou Istchee: The Collection of Mary Mitchell by Sarah Small, Young Canada Works Intern

         In 2016 the Archives at Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute
received a collection of photographs, teaching material, and memoirs collected
and written by Mary Mitchell (Image 1). 
As a young adult Mary was eager to make a difference in the lives of
others, as well to make a life for herself so she studied to become a teacher
and started her career in the mid-1950s. 
Mary began teaching in southern Ontario, however the easy routine of
classroom life in the urban environment prompted her to search for a new
adventure in an exotic and remote location. 
Mary realized this dream when she accepted a teaching position in
Moosonee in 1958.  This decision
encouraged Mary to continue teaching in Eeyou Istchee, which she did on and off
until 1973.  

(Image 1: Mary Mitchell. Photographer: Unknown)

Mary Mitchell in
Moosonee 1958-1959:

eagerness for a new challenge compelled her to send out applications to “places that [she] imagined to be very remote
from Scarborough
”, despite knowing nothing about them.  She soon received a call from the school in
Moosonee for a position in a junior room (Grades 1-4).   After 24 hours of deliberations Mary
accepted the position and set off for Moosonee (Image 2) by train.  The next year was a challenge for Mary but
she soon settled into northern life.  After
considering her career goals Mary resigned from her position in the spring of
1959 and went home to London, Ontario to begin new studies at the London Bible Institute. 

(Image 2: Moosonee Photos. Photographer: Mary Mitchell)

Mary Mitchell in Eastmain 1962-1969:

          Only three years
later, Mary returned to the James Bay region in 1962, when she began teaching
in Eastmain (Image 3). After teaching in
Eastmain for six years, Mary realized that the seventh would be her last and
she left in June 1969 to realize her dream of completing a bachelor’s degree.

(Image 3: Eastmain Clinic and Band Office. Photographer: Mary Mitchell)

Mary Mitchell in Fort George (Chisasibi) 1972 –

          After completing
an undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto, Mary was once again
called back to the north. In the fall of
1972 Mary arrived in Fort George (Chisasibi) to begin another school year. Mary only stayed in Fort George (Image 4) for
one year, leaving in the spring of 1973 to take up a position as a classroom
consultant in Thunder Bay for the following fall.  

(Image 3: Fort George Photos. Photographer: Mary Mitchell)

Life after Eeyou Istchee:

her time as a classroom consultant, Mary moved on to teach at Confederation College,
Lakehead University, Mid Canada Bible College (Thunder Bay), and Marmara
University (Turkey).[1] Mary made significant contributions to
education during this time; especially at Lakehead University, where she helped
to establish the diploma program in Native Language Instruction.[2]

Details of Mary Mitchell’s Collection:

collected documents, objects, and photographs of Mary show that she cherished
her time working as a teacher in Eeyou Istchee. Mary’s personal memoirs demonstrate her attachment
to the region and express her unhappiness when this part of her life came to an
end. Mary wrote that she “had been at home on the coast of James Bay
in three different communities, since 1958, and now there was a good chance of
[her] never being back here again

archival material offers a special opportunity to learn about her experiences
and different perspectives on life in Eeyou Istchee:

·      Photographs:
Visual insight into the history of the Cree communities and residents.

·     Memoirs:
Insight into daily life, what it was like to be a teacher, personal
relationships and, issues that affected the region.

·       Yearbook
and Teaching Material: A glimpse into school life and what it was like to be a
kid in those days (Image 5).

(Image 5: Eastmain Yearbook)

Through Mary’s
memoirs we can explore her daily activities, interactions and gain a deeper
understanding of what it was like to be a teacher in northern communities. Her writings provide details about school
buildings and supplies, the routine of the classroom, daily lessons, her
interaction with students, their eagerness to learn and, her struggles in this
new environment.     Mary’s experiences were probably not uncommon
and so her personal thoughts and feelings can help us to understand the life of
teachers in similar communities. Mary’s
comments on these topics are also significant for the Cree community because
they provide an opportunity observe the changes in the education of children in
local Cree communities. These improvements
can be tracked from Mary’s first job in Moosonee to her final teaching positon
in the community ofFort George. By 1972
Mary was required to outline a “self-designed
“Native Studies””
course and at the school in Fort George the teaching of
Cree syllabics was gaining ground through her efforts. Mary believed it was“one means of maintaining, developing and dignifying the language and
culture that was [the students’] birthright.”
knowledge of the region expanded with time and this new understanding is
expressed in her two later memoirs as she begins to comment on the landscape,
how the region was administered and important events and activities, which make
them an important historical source.  Mary
touched on topics that affected the entire population of Eeyou Istchee,
including the proposed dam project that would divert the waters of the Ungava
peninsula to create hydroelectric power and the organization of medical care in
the region. 

event which fascinated Mary and the local residents of Moosonee and affected
life in Eeyou Istchee was the yearly ‘freeze-up’.   Mary
describes how, “I, along with many of the
citizens of Moosonee, lined the shore and watched intently, when the first
freeze-up delivery was underway
.”  Mary
describes the logistics of mail delivery during freeze-up time, through which
we get a glimpse of the realities of life on the coast of James Bay and of the
excitement and fascination both Mary and the residents experienced.  Mary’s account of these events and other
aspects of her life in Eeyou Istchee offer insight into the realities of life
in northern communities. Her personal observations and thoughts provide a
unique outlook on this period in the James Bay region.

variety of subjects depicted in Mary’s photographic collection again illustrate
her interest to capture life in Eeyou Istchee and offer an excellent visual
insight into the history of the residents and communities.  In her photographs, kids sit at their desks
hard at work or are captured enjoying a special holiday treat, local residents
go about their daily activities, community landmarks are featured, and much
more (Image 6).

(Image 6: The People of Eeyou Istchee.  Photographer: Mary Mitchell)

AanischaaukamikwCree Cultural Institute is excited to have this collection of archival
material, which will provide a glimpse into life in Eeyou Istchee from 1958 to
1973 and give our Cree community members an opportunity to identify family and
friends in forgotten or unknown photographs. Alongside this material, the Collections
Department is delighted to have received two rattles (Image 7) and an octopus bag (Image 8) that were kept as mementos by Mary.  In the very near future ACCI staff will be reaching out to residents in
EastmainChisasibi, and Moosonee to help give names to the faces in the photograph collection, which iscurrently being organized
and catalogued. We hope to have the material
available for research early in 2017. We will provide Eastmain, Chisasibi and
Moosonee with copies of the material relevant to their communities. The
collection will feature on our online database on the Cree Community
collections online website which will be available for all to use in early
2017- watch this space.

(Image 7: Mary’s Rattles)
(Image 8: Mary’s Octopus Bag)

hope you enjoyed this post and look forward to seeing you at Aanischaaukamikw
Cree Cultural Institute.

[1] http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/chroniclejournal/obituary.aspx?pid=174965135.