I recently had the chance to speak with one of our trail-blazers over the phone. The first President of the Native Women’s Association in Mistissini, who helped bring in one of the first Native Daycares in Quebec was very busy with sick children streaming in to see her. She closed her door and gave me 40 minutes of her time.
After speaking with Dorothy Nicholls, I am almost at a loss for words at how admirable she is. I am convinced it has something to do with being born north of Mistissini Lake during a portage when her parents were coming down from their trapping grounds.
Sent away at the age of five, she attended schools in Ontario and Quebec. She started her high school in Quebec City, but her education was somehow cut short. After having raised three children, she tried to continue her schooling in Moose Factory, at the Moosenee Education Centre. Work called her back each time and she returned to school as an adult but in regular class settings, with high school students. Two credits short of graduating, she left to study business and commerce at Algonquin College.
Afterwards, she acquired much on-the-job training in office Work. There was also time as a postmaster in Moose Factory, kitchen helper, hostess and “girl Friday” in a Brigadier General’s mess hall in Petawawa before Dorothy finally returned to Mistissini. At this time, the quest for the Native Daycare began.
“I came back to Mistissini to run the motel. My brother and I had bought shares in the hotel and rather than see it fold, I came back here while the high school was being built”.
“From there I worked for the Quebec Native Women’s Association as the first President for the Mistissini Local. But I felt it was a conflict of interest and resigned. I became the Administrator for the Association. I managed the school and that’s where the daycare came in.”
“Bella and Nancy Mianscum and I were the founders of the James Bay Native Women’s Association. Our objective was to establish a daycare here. We saw that in offices here where young women were working, the phone was constantly ringing and mothers had to run home to see to the children because there wasn’t any proper care being given.”
“We knew it wasn’t traditional. We didn’t say that daycares were the best thing for children. We said they were the second best thing. That it was better than having children looking after younger children, and that’s what was happening. Grandparents were out working. The trend had changed; the extended family was no longer as strong as it had been.”
‘We spent five years preparing to establish the daycare in Mistissini. We had to do a lot of lobbying in Montreal, at the “Office des Gardes.” At The Native Women’s Association’s national level, we took the situation we were in. The problem was that the provincial government thought we belonged to the federal government and they thought we belonged to the provincial. So it took about five years and they finally offered us 30 seats and then the training came through the Continuing Education program here.”
Located in Mistissini, in a cedar log building they had rented from Mistco Ventures Inc., the Awash Daycare Centre was established in the 1980s. There were 12 people in training and 3 in the office.
We raised money to furnish our daycare by taking big sheets of paper with different squares of pictures, that were chairs or toys or a TV Then as we sold the blocks we got our money to furnish our daycare. Most of the money came from the community, the entities.”
“It has been sometime since we lobbied for our daycares and many persons were not aware of the obstacles and work that it required to make the daycares possible in our community. Those who were part of the team are: the M.N.W.A. Board, Chief Henry Mianscum, Paul Adams. Matthew Petawabano, Manpower, Sylvain Marion, Michelle Rouleau, Guy St. Julien. There are probably others that I forgot to mention…”
The daycare has provided monitored, safe care for the children and this has allowed for women to change their perceptions of themselves. It has given them a voice. They are pursuing higher education at growing numbers and are attaining better positions in the workforce. In Mistissini, there are currently two daycares that are full, each with long waiting lists.
“We see women in good positions that weren’t available before, they are there now. There wasn’t a really strong women’s leadership within the community and it needed something like this daycare to start bringing the women’s leadership out. Women ran it and it provided jobs. A lot of the early childhood care workers are now teachers, they have gone on and are still taking courses. So a lot of good things have come out of it.”
These days, Nicholls is on the Board of Directors at CINI FM and is still actively involved with children. The streams of sick children coming into her office were from the classrooms at the Voyageur Memorial Elementary School in Mistissini, where she is currently the Vice Principal. She originally started teaching with a job offer as a part time Home Economics teacher at the high school.
“I did ‘western’ cooking. We taught them Home Ec and Moral Education. During this period of time we were asked to register with UQAQ to start taking teacher-training courses. After I had done half the course, a couple of professors approached me and asked me to go to university because they thought I could do well. So I registered at Concordia University. I was 51 or 52 at the time. I did my TESL and got my BA from there. I think I was 55 when I graduated.”
“So then I came back here and I taught secondary I. I taught for three years. I loved it. I think I liked the idea of almost being a child again myself, going through all this.”
“Then I was asked if I would apply for the Vice Principal position at the elementary school. I wasn’t so keen at first, but my husband ^ talked me into it. I haven’t been sorry I took this position.”
When asked what the most important things her parents taught her, she quotes her father, her grandfather and her mother.
“My grandfather always told us not to dwell on things that were not important, like being angry over something. Don’t let it overcome your life he would say.”
“My dad said that you could do anything you want; that if you work at it, you can do anything you want.”
“From my mother, always listen. She always said, ‘Listen to the other person, listen to what they are saying before you speak. It takes two people to be angry. If someone is angry at you, let them talk, let them continue talking and when they are finished, then give a soft answer in return.’ That was my mom’s way of thinking.”