The First Peoples Innovation Centre aims to immerse Indigenous women into the digital age with its Feminine FabLab project
The hands-on project focused on catering to Indigenous youth and women has received new funding to broaden the program following its initial success.
The First Peoples Innovation Centre is set to open a new FabLab location on the Mashteuiatsh reserve. The successful project, which has seen ample participation and graduation rates, is the first of its kind in Canada for Indigenous communities.
The opening of the new location will be funded by the Quebec Government through an investment of $300,000 that was announced on February 8.
“This support is a symbol of our engagement to assist the concrete initiatives of this noble cause in order to ensure they keep moving forward,” said Suzanne Tremblay, Member for Hull, in a press release. “We are proud to support this organization.”
The First Peoples Innovation Centre (FPIC) has come a long way since it opened its doors in 2012 and this investment will allow them to broaden its operations by making its resources and programming accessible on reserves.
“When we started, we were three persons that were meeting in conferences around Quebec talking about what can be done and how we can be useful to Indigenous people,” said general manager Céline Auclair. Today, ten years later, the FPIC team is made up of 30 employees, 76 per cent of whom are First Nations members.
The FPIC developed its FabLab by using the model of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The concept of FabLab, which stands for “fabrication laboratory”, was created by the MIT in 1990 and since the launch of the first FabLab in 2001, the initiative has seen growing popularity each year mainly due to its boundlessness in terms of creative control.
What differentiates the FPIC’s FabLab from others is that it is curated for Indigenous people with the goal “to stimulate social and technological innovation” amongst the women in these communities. When they opened their first FabLab location in the Uashat mak Mani-Utenam community, there was a strong emphasis on integrating each women’s roots into the program.
“Culture is very important here,” said Auclair. “When they arrive, the very first day we tell them: ‘you know, you’re not an Indigenous person, that is a general term – one that means anything and everything at the same time. You’re Innu, you’re Anishinaabe, you’re Cree, you’re Ojibway, you’re Inuit. Be proud of your nation.’”
Along with instructors, a cultural facilitator is assigned to each cohort to ensure each participant feels represented. This is also done because a lot of the women who enter the program have never been exposed to technology before.
“Maybe half of them had never used a computer before. Some didn’t know what a mouse was, and they were laughing, you know, [looking back at] when we presented them the mouse then, and now that they finished this very sophisticated digital training.”
The program, which is open to all ages and lasts eight weeks, is extremely hands-on as the women start using the equipment on the first day.
“It’s a platform where we can prototype very different items to different pieces of equipment all controlled by computers,” explained Auclair regarding the FabLab equipment. “So, we can do 3D printing, laser cutting, even digital embroidery. We work extensively with different types of materials like wood, metal, glass, and even bones.”
While the equipment may seem intimidating at first, students are always encouraged to “learn everything one step at a time,” and this is reflected in the graduation rates, which currently stand between 75 and 85 per cent. Additionally, throughout their training, women will be guided by instructors and assistant instructors who are often former students that have demonstrated they “had a nature of transferring knowledge,” which is a big part of the program.
Another staple of the program is the idea of collaboration. Each prototype made can be shared across the world with anyone who wishes to get their hands on it, allowing them to receive the latest state of knowledge on the document so they do not have to start from scratch.
For students like Antina-Jenell Powderhorn, who has been participating in the Feminine FabLab since September and is now in the advanced cohort, programs like this are essential.
“It’s important because a lot of Indigenous people don’t see that there are opportunities out there for themselves, they just think that because of their situation or where they grew up that a lot of them can’t reach the things that they want to reach, so they just fall in the cycle of generational trauma.”
The advanced FabLab, which trains women in coding, aims to bring each one closer to a career in the digital world.
Photo 1: Exterior of the FabLab ONAKI located inside the First Peoples Innovation Centre in Vieux-Hull, Gatineau. (Credit: Djeneba Dosso)
Photo 2: Advanced cohort FabLab workshop in full motion; the instructor walks around the room to assist participants if needed. (Credit: Djeneba Dosso)
Photo 3: Antina-Jenell Powderhorn, a member of the advanced FabLab cohort who is following the lesson. (Credit: Djeneba Dosso)