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Community ᐄᐦᑖᐧᐃᓐ

FabLab Onaki program trains Indigenous youth to use high-tech equipment

BY Jamie Pashagumskum Jan 4, 2019

The grand opening took place on Nov 26 at the FPIC in Gatineau

The First Peoples Innovation Centre launched the first Indigenous fabrication laboratory in Canada called FabLab Onaki to train Native youth on the most innovative technologies of the 21st century.

The grand opening took place on Nov 26 at the FPIC in Gatineau. In attendance were representatives from the City of Gatineau, funding agents such as Employment Canada, and Indigenous chiefs and dignitaries.

Also on hand were graduates of the pilot program, which started in June. They spoke about what they learned in the program and the skills they acquired. In fact, the top two students were hired as assistant instructors for the next group.

FPIC Executive Director Céline Auclair said the centre was founded in 2011to help Indigenous people adapt to life in the city. Auclair and her colleagues felt there was a pressing need for the service because Gatineau has one of the largest urban Aboriginal populations in the province.

The head instructor for the FabLab is Phonesavanh Thongsouksanoumane, whose background is in fine arts. The lab also employs contract instructors from other manufacturing laboratories, including Bombardier and various universities. The guest instructors are chosen based on their specific programs and specialties.

Directed at Indigenous youth between the ages of 16-30, the FabLab program welcomes students from anywhere in the country and participants receive an hourly training allowance of $12 paid by Employment Canada.

The five-month program runs all day, starting with identity pride discussions in the morning. In these classes students are introduced to theories and teachings on Native identity, participate in arts and crafts activities, and hear from guest speakers, such as Elders and leaders from the Indigenous community.

The afternoon is for the hands-on, technical portion of the program. Students are taught to use cutting-edge, high-tech fabrication equipment, such as 3D printers, laser cutters and computer numerical control machines. The latter is a computer that controls shop tools, such as cutters and drills. With these devices, students can produce prototypes and pieces using digital software.

“The participants are initiated to high-tech equipment with a traditional approach,” explained Auclair, adding that courses are taught hands-on rather than in a classroom setting. “Students are in front of the machine and there is an instructor. This approach has been very successful.”

He says that the skills the students are learning are invaluable, both in an urban setting and in the communities.

One of the more interesting pieces that Auclair saw produced in the lab was an orthopaedic device that a student made for people with bad knees to relieve their pain and aid in walking.

She said even though the students are working with 21st century equipment, many of them chose to use more traditional materials, such as leather, bone, stone and wood. Auclair called it a “marriage of the traditional to the modern.”

About 70% of students graduated from the first session, which finished in October. This is well above the 20%-30% graduation rates seen in many other Native youth training programs.

Auclair said the second session, currently underway, is proving to be even more successful. After only four weeks, the students have already covered two-thirds of the course material.

Many of them haven’t finished high school, but are gaining cutting-edge tech industry expertise. Auclair calls their ability to learn “unbelievable,” says that leaving these capable young people without skills or productive work would be “scandalous.”

The next phase of the project is to set up a mobile FabLab that would bring the education and skills to youth in their home communities.

The Fablab Onaki is funded by Employment Canada, which contributed $589,000 for the first year. Negotiations are currently underway for next year’s funding.

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Jamie Pashagumskum is a member of the Cree Nation of Chisasibi. He is currently studying journalism at
Carlton University and has been writing for the Nation Magazine since 2017.