I had the honour of meeting Annie at Opitciwan’s annual powwow in August, where this elegant lady was taking part in traditional dances to the sound of drumming and singing. A highly respected leader in the Opitciwan community who has enjoyed a remarkable career in the educational field, she’s notable for playing multiple roles in the social life of the village, located 376 km northwest of Saguenay.
A mother of five who married at the age of 19, Annie is from the Nitaskinan territory and was born in February 1952—in a prospector’s tent! Until she left to pursue her high school studies at a boarding school in Amos, her day-to-day life was defined by the forest. Her family obtained food by hunting for beaver, hare, partridge, bear and moose.
In Grade 7, governmental authorities took children away to a residential school. “Life there was hard,” she says. “I learned French, respect for the rules and discipline. The circumstances taught me to express my needs.” She confides that she was a victim of sexual abuse. While discussing the devastating impact of these schools, she notes that commissions of inquiry have been held, which led to a compensation program for victims of abuse by educators. Many members of the Atikamekw community turned to indigenous spirituality to ease their pain. Annie is one of those who benefited, and she in turn has used it to help others who are suffering. She has led healing, birth, first steps and other ceremonies.
In 1971, she embarked on a teaching career while her partner looked after their youngest children at home. She continues to pursue her mission of education today. In parallel with her work as a teacher, she studied for her bachelor’s degree in teaching, which she earned in 1984. She then moved into administrative positions, serving as director of pre-school education in 1985, elementary school vice-principal in 1989 and, finally, co-principal in 2017.
Now a kokum (grandmother) to numerous grandchildren, she has a clearly developed vision of education- and identity-related priorities for the Atikamekw. She recognizes that children exposed to both their mother tongue and French may have more difficulty mastering the language of their parents and community. Teaching of the Atikamekw language therefore needs to be continued during high school.
Annie, who also serves as a translator for people appearing in court, insists on maintaining pedagogical activities centred on traditional life, both in school and in the forest environment. Children should be taught about the life of animals, hunting, traditional meals and so forth. She has always placed great importance on being closely involved in the social life of the Atikamekw. She has served as president of women’s committees at both the community and national levels. She has played various roles on the Council of the Atikamekw Nation’s cultural committees, especially with regard to establishing guidelines and policies. She has also been a member the Opitciwan Band Council on multiple occasions.
For this woman of great wisdom, the development of Atikamekw society needs to prioritize education and leadership that focuses on integrity, the ability to build bridges and a desire to serve the members of the community. Annie, who is also involved in Opitciwan’s Christian community, believes in the universal values of mutual aid, justice, open-mindedness, equality and fairness.
She offers the following advice to young people: cultivate your communication and leadership skills; encourage respect for other cultures; and act in a spirit of solidarity, sharing and welcome, always maintaining a positive attitude toward your mantew (visitor).