While it might have been a class project for a group of Concordia University students, the Montreal public had the opportunity to take in some professional opinions on what it’s like to be a stranger in your own homeland.

Packing the atrium of the Samuel Bronfman Building on March 3, students in the School of Community and Public Affairs (SCPA) as well as members of the general public listened to a panel discussion titled Culture Shock: The Urban Aboriginal Experience.

Representing three different Aboriginal organizations, the panelists included Nakuset, executive director of the Montreal Native Women’s Shelter, Cheryl McDonald, assistant executive director of the First Nations Human Resources Development Commission of Quebec, and Dianne Ottereyes-Reid, president of the Board of Directors of the Native Friendship Centre of Montreal.

“We talked about health, homelessness, addiction, community organizations and that is all very relevant to culture,” said event organizer and SCPA student Adrienne Campbell.

Through the different perspectives given by the three panelists, many issues were explored from the perspectives of outreach workers, administration and advocacy. Throughout it all however, the basic message was that more needs to be done on both community and governmental levels for Aboriginals in urban settings.

At the same time, those taking in the event expressed a great deal of shock and frustration at having heard about this situation in depth for the first time. Their feelings and outrage became evident during the question-and-answer period.

“Discrimination is so out there that we don’t even notice it anymore and that is the sad thing. Cultural awareness, knowing our language, advocacy — these are all things that will help our people. We know we need to be educating the population about racism,” said Nakuset.

Reid and Nakuset discussed how the lack of funding for their organizations has made accessing additional funding difficult since without the human resources to apply for it, it never comes through.

When they can manage to get their hands on funding and resources, however, positive things can happen. Nakuset explained how she was able to acquire new funding recently for a program where frontline workers take residents of the Native Women’s Shelter to get HIV and hepatitis tests and follow-up. The funding for this comes through Indian and Northern Affairs, but Nakuset would have never have found out about the funding had she not been directed to it through Montreal’s City Hall.

“We are able to get money from INAC and they never gave money to Quebec or Montreal,” said Nakuset, proud to have procured the previously unattainable funding.

Reid, on the other hand, used her time on the panel to express her frustrations in being the president of the Board of Directors of the Friendship Centre of Montreal. During her 36 years in Montreal, she has watched the services become overwhelmed with an increase in clients and less people to handle the load.

“The Montreal Friendship Centre has been considered a centre in difficulty since 2001,” said Reid.

Reid’s vision for the Montreal centre is to go with Vancouver’s approach where services for the homeless, day programs and outreach work for those on the streets are separated from the cultural aspects that the Centre was originally mandated to provide. Vancouver now has separate facilities for both. Her vision is to see a state-of-the-art Friendship Centre in Montreal that could house cultural activities and community gatherings.

Reid questioned whether funding for urban Aboriginals in general is skewed towards western Canada. Reid said many other major cities have Aboriginal-specific health centres and various other service centres and so should Montreal.

Reid however does not think that Native Friendship Centres will ever see a funding increase or any real improvements for as long as they are funded as a national program under Heritage Canada.

“If it were up to me, I would put it under INAC because then you have opportunities for block funding and program funding and also because I would love to force INAC to take a serious look at the Urban Aboriginal Strategy Initiative,” said Reid.

The panel discussion was an eye-opening experience for many who attended the event, and the organizers felt their objective was accomplished as lines of communication were opened and meaningful dialogue took place.