5: Christmas in Cadotte Lake

5: Christmas in Cadotte Lake

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Christmas in Canada

Christmas in Cadotte Lake

Every gift which is given, even though it be small, is in reality great, if it is given with affection.


Decades ago I taught in Cadotte Lake, an impoverished Métis Colony located close to Peace River in northwestern Alberta. There seemed little sense of their culture, with no traditional dancing or clothing, nor signs of a connection to the spirituality of their ancestors. Some could not even speak their Cree language. It was as if they had been displaced when an oil company moved them off their original land.

I was young, naïve and unprepared for this life. I was friendly, but wary, and the community took a “watch and wait” attitude towards me. In my classroom, I felt overwhelmed. Teacher training had not prepared me for a room with three grades, five age groups and ten learning levels. One little girl named Harriet spent the first few days with her head on her desk looking defiant and I wanted to follow suit. Lesson preparation was a puzzle with missing pieces. I used the materials provided by the district, but soon found it easier and more fitting to teach through instinct and base my lessons on my students’ world. My superiors didn’t approve, but my kids did learn that year.

One example of their learning was evident when the principal stopped by and was speaking quietly to me. A student called out, directing my attention to a gathering of animals that were migrating across the lake. After the principal left, we grabbed our boots and coats and headed outside for a closer look at this incredible sight. The kids explained why the creatures must be wolves, as coyotes don’t travel in packs. This was one of the many lessons on nature that I was taught by my students that year. We used journals regularly, as I felt instinctively that they were better teaching tools than textbooks, which the students could not relate to much of the time. Through journaling, they learned self-expression, developed writing skills, and found ways to describe the beauty in the world around them, something I was finally beginning to see with their guidance. I was not deliberately rejecting the ways of the school district, just finding my own path.

One of my most significant and touching memories was of our Christmas together. Decorating the classroom drew in all of the kids. With few supplies in the school, I relied on memories from my own childhood to get the fun started with simple materials. Bells were made from egg cartons and tin foil. Tin foil also made glittering angels. We made pretty chains with red and green paper that I scrounged from the nearly empty supply cabinet. Whiffs of glue mingled with marker and crayon and wafted through the air, riding on the excitement of the kids as they worked. Most were very artistic and I was always amazed by their ability to create beauty. As they worked, they switched between English and Cree. Grins and sixteen pairs of brown eyes shone like Christmas lights. They were in awe of their Christmas-making. I was in awe of them.

On the day we were all going to hunt for a tree, a boy brought an axe from home. This would never happen in urban life, but these kids were well practiced in the safe chopping of wood. Off we went in search of the perfect tree. I don’t remember asking if they had ever had a tree before but in retrospect I don’t think it was part of their Christmas. This is not sad, just different. They didn’t put icing on cakes either. The small community had a simple lifestyle and I accepted their ways of doing things.

Laughter and carols mixed in with the crunching of snow as we walked. Santa was only mentioned in song, as he was never found in Cadotte Lake. Little was said about the Christian basis of the holiday, though I touched on it through song and story. Many kids had been introduced to Christianity and the story of Baby Jesus, but formal religion was not part of their everyday lives and conversion was not my role. We kept things simple, but joyous. I am sure Jesus would have approved.

We found the perfect tree and the grade five boys took turns with an axe, cutting it down. Back it came with us, leaving a trail of green needles on the pure and crisp white snow. It was propped against the school and we headed inside for a hot lunch. The next day, we brought the tree inside and I popped it into an old metal garbage can that was almost green. The fresh scent of evergreen added to the festivities as we went to work. Paper chains were hung on the tree and around the room. Christmas balls and bells, stars and angels were placed carefully on the tree. The work that everyone had put into the creations made everything so bright and cheery. Happy chatter and more singing completed the atmosphere. I had never seen them look so happy. Nor had I felt so happy since driving into the community that first day, to experience things I could never have expected.

On the day before Christmas break, everyone arrived full of excitement. I had grown accustomed to the morning ruckus, but it was different that day. Kids dropped off coats and boots and hustled into the classroom. They smiled at me, and then suddenly all was quiet. They stared and whispered, then quickly flew to their seats. They had spotted tiny gifts that had been wrapped and placed under their beautiful tree. They had no idea what to say or to expect. I was the only one smiling as I took in their sense of wonder. Gifts were not unheard of, but this way was different. They sat, squirming in anticipation of what would happen next.

“I bet it’s books,” Stacey shouted with an intense look on his face. Nobody laughed and I shook my head. When they could wait no longer, I called each child up to accept a tiny package. Wrappings were gone even before they made it to their desks and, judging by their reactions, they were well pleased with the tiny gifts I had selected. I stood and watched. It was my turn to be speechless. There was so much to take in that magic is the only word that comes to mind, as I relive the best moments of that year. They were thrilled with little combs, pens shaped like tools, fancy note pads and other small items. Their excited chatter almost rattled the windows, as they compared their treasures. It became a hum, like a furnace spreading a warm glow between the children, through the room and into my heart. That was their gift to me. I returned to the front of the classroom. No words were used to thank me for these small offerings. It came through those eyes and those smiles; the joy that bound us together. Over thirty years later, it is still the best Christmas I have ever had.

~Paula Gillis

Edmonton, Alberta

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