Tracy Diabo, coordinator of McGill's First Peoples House


First Peoples House open for business

Dean of Students Rosalie Jukier, Yvan Pelchat from the Ministry of Education, and Professor Albert Snow, associate director of the Office of First Nations, at the official opening last semester


DANIEL McCABE | Aboriginal students, especially if they come from small communities, often find the transition to university a daunting experience. "If you're the only aboriginal student in a class of 400, it's not only intimidating, there is a real sense of loneliness," says Tracy Diabo, the coordinator for McGill's new First Peoples House.

Diabo, a Mohawk from Kahnawake, recalls feeling a certain amount of culture shock herself when she worked on her master's degree in community and public affairs at Concordia.

"The exchanges between the students in the seminars often seemed so confrontational -- people yelling at each other, trying to score points. I come from a background where there is a heavy emphasis placed on reaching consensus. It felt a little uncomfortable."

"Aboriginal students often feel that they're not part of the university community," agrees education professor Albert Snow, associate director of the Office of First Nations and Inuit Education. "We're hoping the First Peoples House gives them a greater sense of belonging while they're at McGill."

McGill's First Peoples House, located at 3505 Peel, began operations in November. The idea for the house was first proposed to the joint Senate/Board equity committee a few years ago by communication sciences and disorders professor Martha Crago and Eddie Cross, director of education at Kahnawake. Law professor Rosalie Jukier, then a member of the committee, thought the notion was a good one and when she became dean of students shortly thereafter, she championed the idea.

Jukier visited similar facilities at the University of Toronto and Concordia to see how they operated. She successfully applied to the Quebec government for $200,000 in funding to help set up the house and persuaded the University to buy the property on Peel -- close to where the new Student Services building will be constructed.

"She deserves a lot of credit for making it happen," says Snow.

Still, some say that McGill should be doing more. The Montreal weekly Hour ran a pair of articles last fall questioning McGill's commitment to the First Peoples House. Its first coordinator, Linda Arkwright, told Hour that she didn't think McGill was giving the house enough resources -- financially or in terms of staff. Rodney Bobbiwash, the director of the University of Toronto's First Nations House, said, "I can't understand why, given McGill's history and its pride for its Arctic programs, they haven't done more."

Jukier admits that the U of T facility has a bigger budget and more staff -- including an aboriginal elder in residence. "They also have a head start on us -- they've been around for several years."

"McGill is years behind many of the other universities in setting something like this up," says Diabo. "But I would rather focus on the things we can accomplish now that we're up and running. I know that Dean Jukier believes in this place."

The principal mission of the house will be to help native students find the support and resources they need to succeed academically. Part of that will be accomplished by putting aboriginal students in touch with each other. "We do have a fair number of native students at McGill, but they tend to be spread out across the University," says Jukier.

Incoming students applying for McGill ID cards are now asked to fill out a voluntary educational equity survey to help the University keep track of the cultural make-up of its student body. In the 1996 survey, 53 students identified themselves as aboriginal. "We have no way of knowing for certain, but we can assume loosely that there are 150 aboriginal students on campus," says Jukier.

Dozens of others are registered in distance education programs offered by the Faculty of Education and the School of Social Work which require occasional visits to McGill.

Working with Student Services, Diabo will be able to steer aboriginal students towards resources they might require -- counseling or tutorial assistance, if the need arises. Rooms located on the second floor will eventually be available for rent for aboriginal students.

In addition, the house aims to be the focal point of aboriginal life at McGill. Guest lecturers will offer presentations on various aspects of native life, and an exhibit of work by native artists is being planned.

"The focus will be on First Peoples students, but everyone is welcome to the events," says Diabo. "Part of the job is to say to the rest of McGill, 'Hey, we're here.'"

"Tracy is very conscientious -- she works hard," says Snow, a Mohawk and the chair of McGill's First Peoples equity subcommittee. "She was instrumental in getting Concordia's Native Education Centre started."

"We put a little fire under the administration," Diabo, the former head of Concordia's First Nations Students' Association, recalls with a laugh. "I know what it takes to get something like this off the ground."

Diabo says McGill's aboriginal students have their share of complaints about the University. They think there should be more courses with First Peoples content and more aboriginal professors. She adds that some McGill research centres, such as the Centre for Indigenous Peoples' Nutrition and Environment and AGREE, have earned good reputations for their willingness to collaborate with native communities.

Diabo is working with colleagues at Concordia to organize a special joint ceremony honouring new aboriginal graduates at the two schools this spring. She'll be collaborating with the Recruitment and Liaison Office in an effort to attract more prospective students from native communities.

Snow cautions that it could take a while for the house to start making an impact. "It can be a slow process," he says. "It takes a while for people to find out about it. It takes a while to win their confidence. It's been the same at other universities." But over the long term, such centres have a powerful effect, says Snow. "They make a difference in helping students feel comfortable in their surroundings."

Adds Jukier, "If McGill is viewed as a place that offers no support for aboriginal students, they'll choose another university that does."

According to Hour, aboriginal enrolment has doubled at the University of Toronto since its First Nations House opened and aboriginal students now have better degree completion rates than do U of T students in general.