Nunavik Sivunitsavut’s all-female grad group learns and bonds
“We’re like a family here”
MONTREAL—As a single mother, Mary Saunders used to do her homework at night when her daughter was asleep.
The 24-year-old Nunavik Sivunitsavut student from Kuujjuaq remembered how she would whisper with her roommate after dark when studying, so as not to wake the sleeping children.
Roommates and classmates at Montreal’s new post-secondary program for Inuit students from Nunavik were happy to have each other for support to overcome the challenges of studying far from their Nunavik homes.
But they also had their NS teachers and other classmates, who, over the last year, have grown into a close-knit team.
“We’re like a family here,” is a common refrain, which five of the students separately told Nunatsiaq News.
Saunders and her NS class “family” are set to graduate May 18. Out of the 18 students originally enrolled in NS’s first year, 15 have stuck it out to the end and graduated.
“This 72 per cent completion rate is excellent if you compare it to the overall completion rate of Nunavik students sponsored by the school board at the post-secondary level, which has been around 50 per cent for many years now,” said Jade Duchesneau-Bernier, the communications coordinator for Kativik Ilisarniliriniq, the regional school board in Nunavik.
Over the last five years, 264 students received a high school diploma, Duchesneau-Bernier said.
Of the Nunavik high school graduates who start college, about half continue their studies beyond the first year. This year, all the Nunavik students who completed their first-year of NS are women.
But since then, NS has made extra efforts since then to recruit more male students, so there will be more male students next year.
“We are happy to say that this year 20 per cent of those who were successful in their application are men, compared to five per cent last year,” Duchesneau-Bernier said.
The program’s achievements are remarkable, she said, noting the value of the courses in Inuit and circumpolar history, politics, governance, culture and language.
“Over the past two semesters, we have witnessed each and every student bloom as their sense of identity and leadership skills strengthened,” Duchesneau-Bernier said.
“The skills and knowledge they acquire prepare them to either transition into the Nunavik workforce or to further their education at the post-secondary level.”
Taking their cue from Ottawa’s Nunavut Sivuniksavut program for Nunavut Inuit, Quebec’s NS staff members help students cope with moving to the city from Nunavik for a post-secondary education.
A social worker and student life animateur work closely with the students to help them adjust to urban life and work through the challenges that come with living far away from family.
Learning about decolonization and the impacts of residential schooling on current Inuit was tough for some of the students, said Paasa Lemire, a 20-year-old NS student from Kuujjuaq.
It was sometimes difficult to not cry while learning about some parts of Inuit history, said Lemire. But she said she recognizes the importance of this knowledge.
Her best friend Allison May, another NS student from Kuujjuaq, also said she saw the value of the course work, even if some parts triggered difficult emotions.
Lemire and May said they plan to study at Dawson College in community and social work because of what they learned at NS.
They said they want to take their education back to Kuujjuaq afterwards to serve their community with an Inuit-specific focus.
“One angle we had not really anticipated before courses started last year is the impact that the course content can have on students,” Duchesneau-Bernier said.
Jason Annahatak, the director of Kativik School Board’s post-secondary department, plans to introduce an extra space in the programming next year for this purpose.
“We want to create a weekly workshop space for the students to express how they feel about the course material, to check in and debrief,” Annahatak told Nunatsiaq News.
Neevie Simigak, 19, from Kangirsuk said her year at NS changed her as a person.
She already spoke Inuktitut fluently, but often uses English words in between. She said the program opened her eyes to the ways in which Inuktitut needs to be preserved, and that she feels drawn toward doing that work now.
“I used to not know about colonization and it changed me,” Simigak said. She said the program made her more aware, in particular, of not wanting to lose her language.
When she started living in Montreal, Simigak realized most people in the city barely know about Inuit.
“I want to educate people in the South about us through writing,” Simigak said.
For those considering applying to NS in the future, Simigak only has words of encouragement.
“If you want to learn more about yourself, your culture and your history, then going to NS is the perfect place,” Simigak said.
“When I came to NS, I made a family. I will be visiting NS even when I am not in NS any more.”