No matter what colour your skin is, or what religion you follow, education is important for all of us. In this day and age, education is the key not only for a good job, but also a brighter future. As native people, we are always striving to better ourselves in many ways, with higher learning being the main focus.

The Université du Quebec en Abitibi-Temiscamingue at Val D’or wants to help native people achieve their goals, while making their students feel more comfortable at the same time. The proposed project, a First Nations pavilion, is to be built in time for the 2004 session. This pavilion would help native students familiarize themselves with their surroundings on UQAT’s campus in Val D’or, while still feeling, to a certain extent, like they haven’t left home.

Gale Cyr is a professor at UQAT, and was the primary driving force behind the creation of Quebec’s first native pavilion. According to Cyr, the centre has been sorely needed for quite some time. “Part of it was from my own individual and collective experiences as a first nations student,” she says. “I quickly realized I had to leave the province to go to school. I had been at home all of my life, and I left at the age of 35 to go back to school.” ‘

Originally from the Algonquin community of Temiscamingue, Cyr decided that enough was enough, education is a right, not a privilege, and that First Nations students should be afforded those rights like everyone else. Cyr sits on the accreditation board of the schools of social work of Canada. Traveling across Canada enables her to study the different programs and services available to First Nations across the country, while at the same time helping to provide insight into what is lacking for Quebec’s native people.

A lot of time was spent trying to figure out what exactly could be done to better First Nations academic experiences in Quebec in general, and at UQAT in particular. “We saw that putting something in place with no infrastructure wouldn’t be good, we needed student services first.”

An alumnus at both Canador College and Nippissing University in Ontario, Cyr was able to go back to those institutes and ask for a helping hand. The support she received from the respective schools was helpful, and Cyr hopes that the new pavilion will, in certain ways, surpass the services offered to First Nations students at either of those universities.

Gina Richmond, an Algonquin who lives in Val D’or, played a large part in the research aspect of this project. Having recently completed her bachelor’s degree in social work at UQAT, she felt there was a strong need for a place that native people could call their own. Looking for a place to do her practicum, Richmond was encouraged by Cyr to “come and do it with us.” Seizing the opportunity, she was able to start the groundwork on how to better university life for native people who tend to feel isolated in a foreign environment.

While doing her research at Canador College, as well as B.C, Victoria and Nippissing Universities, Richmond was able to see different services and programs native people in Quebec were missing out on. Some native people choose to go to university elsewhere, but that is not the solution for many French speaking natives. “It’s even more difficult for natives whose first or second language is French. We’re kind of more isolated because all the information, and everything is in English.”

According to both Cyr and Richmond, Quebec’s education system is “15 years behind” every other province, and because of that, they realize the importance of having a place where Native students can be themselves, and at the same time, better themselves.

“I think education is so important, and to have a safe place run by and for First Nations” is something that makes Richmond feel proud to be a part of.

Construction on the new pavilion is supposed to commence after the completion of the longitudinal study in March by Quebec’s education ministry. Funding for the project is still being secured, and will be split between the university, and the MEQ. Exact percentages of who pays what has yet to be determined, although the overall estimated cost of the project is just over $5 million.

UQAT dean Robert Paquin thinks the idea will be beneficial not only for natives, but non-natives as well. “I think it’s a good idea for both natives and non-natives because with the First Nation people, what we want is to offer them an opportunity to have information on their needs. For non-First Nations, it’s great because we can take courses there to learn the tradition, the culture, and everything about the First Nations people.”

According to Paquin, there are services which cater to natives in Quebec, but none are bilingual as the new pavilion will be. “It’s a new concept to have a bilingual pavilion, for example in Chicoutimi you can take courses, but only in French. In McGill they have courses for First Nations, but only in English.”

Rebecca Moore, a Cree from Waswanipi, is the First Nations councilor. Moore works closely with Native students to help them in making important decisions that will help shape their future. “We had interviews to find out the needs of the people, what kind of programs to develop. There was a lot of research to develop this program here. It’s really adapted to the communities.”

Moore has visions of what the new pavilion can be for the generations to come. She puts in long hours at the university, and is also studying part time for her master’s in teaching. When asked if she’d like to teach in the new pavilion, she replied, “I’d love to, it’s like a dream.”

“Myself, when I was a student here, I’d get so discouraged because there were no services for us.”

As of 2004, that might change. “The people who will work there will be First Nations, teachers, councilors, secretaries, professionals, everybody,” quipped Paquin.

It’s a very exciting time for Native people, let’s hope this is just a glimpse of things to come.