The Montreal Native Friendship Centre hosted its first graduation ceremony March 23, after setting up a life skills training program last year. Twenty-four of 30 students graduated in the first wave.

“That’s a great percentage,” said Sky Bellefleur, the trainer for the Life Skills Training Program.

The program teaches Aboriginal history and helps people deal with budgeting, self-esteem, addictions and the trauma of residential schools.

“Some of the things contributed to the baggage people are carrying and don’t realize in many cases like drinking, gambling and other behaviours,” said Bellefleur. “It’s a way of dealing with the pain that’s inside and we look at the healing aspect.”

Bellefleur said the program was set up after a needs assessment was conducted at the Friendship Centre concerning which programs the community members thought they needed.

“A lot of them said they had a hard time finding jobs,” Bellefleur noted. “Many of them didn’t know how to use a computer and felt they needed computer skills and also needed help in gaining self-confidence. So Louise Mayo, the director, looked at the life skills program that she was familiar with and searched for partners.”

One of the partners is Epoch, a non-profit organization. The Centre set up a partnership between them and the First Nations Human Resources Development Commission of Quebec. Between the three partners they hired a trainer and Bellefleur, who worked together for a couple of months building the content of the course. It started in September and ran through March.

It’s more than just healing and teaching people to deal with everyday life, said Bellefleur. “On the positive side, we believe in celebrating our identity as Aboriginal people. If you’re Inuit or Cree, okay let’s find out what it means to be Inuit or Cree for you and be proud of that. It makes a good solid foundation to stand on and that’s a very strong message.”

Sebastien Papatens, a Cree from Sennetere who graduated from the course said he is “very happy of the achievements from the program and all the participants that stuck to the program. Hopefully this will be a useful tool in the future for all of us. I would like to thank all the people who took part in it such as Epoch, the Native Friendship Centre and all the trainers and students.”

There were two sisters from Chisasibi – Helen and Mina Ekomiak -among the graduates. “We had a lot of fun,” said Helen. “We learned a lot of things in the program and we met a lot of people from many different communities. Hopefully the things we learnt will help us succeed in landing future jobs.”

Pamela Shauk, an Inuk from Chisasibi, said the computer course was a little hard for her. “I was very scared to get into it at first, but I’m also very happy for all of the students who graduated with me,” Shauk said. “I strongly encourage people to continue with their education, although we have a lot of dropouts, we must not be quitters. Get out there and accomplish what you want to be.”