For 29 years, Mario Boisselle1 has been teaching mathematics in Wemindji—a Cree community on the east coast of James Bay, which he considers “the paradise of the outdoors.”
Upon starting out as a school teacher in Wemindji, Mario Boisselle began organizing sports activities to keep busy, but over time, he realized how effective these activities were at connecting with young people.
He stepped in to take charge of the school’s female basketball league. Despite the extreme travel times required to just participate in a couple of local tournaments per year, the basketball team became hugely popular, and before long “the schoolgirls stopped asking whether there would be a basketball team and began asking when training camp was starting up,” the teacher recalls.
Building trust in relationships
Mario Boisselle believes that developing connections through sports promotes social bonds and educational success. Over the course of his career, he has seen how engaging in extracurricular activities, such as sports, makes it easier for teachers to establish trust with young people.
On this matter, Vincent Deschênes2 is also convinced. As a physical education teacher in Quaqtaq, on the east shore of Diana Bay (Tuvaaluk, in Inuktitut), he set up sports programs to bring back some of the village's young dropouts.
Working in conjunction with the Joé Juneau3 school-hockey program, he began playing hockey with local youths almost immediately upon arriving in the community. “At first, the students’ attitude towards me was negative, but that changed when we started playing hockey together,” Deschênes recalls. “That’s when I understood the value of introducing many activities outside of school.”
“At the beginning, the young people in the stands would keep their distance from me during tournaments," recalls Mario Boisselle, “but over time, they came and sat with me to watch the basketball games.”
Slowly but surely
In Wemindji, despite numerous challenges and a stubbornly high dropout rate, “the school team has motivated many youths by requiring they follow conditions,” explains Mario Boisselle. “For instance, students need to keep their grades up and succeed in all courses to be eligible for tournaments. Girls are encouraged to complete their high school and graduate, and they have become models for friends and peers. Basketball has saved many young lives.”
Vincent Deschênes also sees the link between youth involvement in sports and a reduction in the community’s dropout rate: “The year I started teaching here, there were eight young graduates, and their influence over the younger students was perceptible. This year, if all goes well, five students will graduate," he boasts.
Deschenes sees his biggest challenge as developing new ways of doing things that attract young people: “In the end, we must provide something they can get behind.”
Even though Mario Boisselle has taken a break from managing sports teams to focus on helping young people who struggle in mathematics, he cannot escape the community’s acknowledgement of his impact. He points out that “former players have even asked me to stay here long enough to teach their own children, which is also very rewarding!”
1 Mario Boisselle is a member of the Association of Employees of Northern Quebec (AENQ-CSQ).
2 Vincent Deschênes is also a member of the AENQ-CSQ.
3 Hockey-school program created by former hockey player Joé Juneau and originally developed in Nunavik.