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Val-d’Or’s Édith Cloutier reflects on building Indigenous leadership after receiving academic honour

BY Patrick Quinn May 22, 2021

The Institut national de la recherche scientifique (INRS) is awarding an honorary doctorate to Édith Cloutier, who they call “a dedicated ambassador of Indigenous identity and a defender of Indigenous rights.”  

The executive director of the Val-d’or Native Friendship Centre for 32 years, Cloutier has received numerous honours, including the Order of Canada in 2013. Cloutier was quick to share this new distinction with the Indigenous women of Quebec and elsewhere, “who are sources of light, nurturing the hope of justice for all.”

“I feel privileged to share this success with all those who have been working at my side,” Cloutier told the Nation. “The Friendship Centre and I have been part of the INRS research network for the past 15 years, building bridges so we can shed a light on urban Indigenous issues in Quebec.”

Cloutier graduated from the Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue in 1989. UQAT is part of the provincial university network – of which INRS is the graduate research component. She’s remained active at her alma mater by overseeing the creation of the First Peoples Pavilion on the Val-d’Or campus and becoming the first Indigenous woman to chair its Board of Directors.

“We have chosen to give an honorary doctorate to Edith Cloutier to celebrate and honour not only her work, but her as a person,” stated INRS CEO Luc-Alain Giraldeau. “She embodies our deepest-held values – respect, openness and inclusion. We can all relate to and be inspired by the unifying message she has been sharing for so many years.

Growing up in Val-d’Or as the daughter of an Anishinaabe mother and Québécois father, Cloutier has been involved with the Friendship Centre since she was a girl. In the early 1970s, her grandparents and large extended family (her mother was one of 11 children) were one of the first Indigenous families to settle in the community, living in three apartment buildings on the same street. 

“My grandfather was actually one of the first board members of the Friendship Centre,” shared Cloutier. “We grew up participating in community events – as a young girl I would come to youth camps. At the age of 15, my first summer job was working in the kitchen at the Friendship Centre. It was my path.”

Established as a drop-in centre for Indigenous peoples living in or transiting through Val-d’Or in 1974, the Native Friendship Centre expanded its facilities and services in the early 1980s. Around this time, Cloutier was brought under the wing of then-director Dominique Rankin and chosen to participate in the first national youth gathering of friendship centres across the country.

After completing her bachelor’s degree, Cloutier accepted the offer to become executive director. Over the decades, she has overseen the organization’s growth as community needs evolved. Its influence has also grown by developing trailblazing initiatives and regional partnerships. 

“We’re leaving the gravel road and getting on the highway.”

“Actually, I’ve only had one job in my life – it’s this one,” said Cloutier. “It’s forged the woman I am. We’ve been challenged with social realities, but the Friendship Centre is taking on our own destiny as a people by taking on development of housing initiatives, health and social services.”

While she never would have guessed homelessness would impact Val-d’Or when she first took the job, the organization now offers a day centre for vulnerable people. Including a space exclusively for women, it offers a variety of culturally safe and personalized support services to help people get off the streets.

“One thing I’ve been learning all these years is that Indigenous self-governance is not just a political stand – it can be at a community level,” Cloutier explained. “How do we translate that capacity to be our own governance as a people, connecting it to a community need? That translates to concrete services – I guess that’s the mission of the Friendship Centre after close to 50 years.”

One initiative is the Minowé clinic, which since 2009 has integrated frontline health services through a partnership with the local public health authority (CISSS). The clinic was highlighted by both the Viens Commission and the recent Laurent Commission as a model to be emulated for delivering systemic change to urban Indigenous people.

“We’re trying to get the clinic recognized in the Quebec health and social system, demonstrating how the Indigenous approach to health can have a better impact on our people because it’s culturally safer and more relevant,” said Cloutier. “We’re still not officially recognized but we have indications we’re at the end of that long road.”

“Active research” in collaboration with Carole Lévesque of the INRS has been instrumental in proving the effectiveness of a clinic by and for Indigenous people. In the past, Cloutier observed, INRS was the only organization interested in better understanding urban Indigenous realities.

“It’s been a long road in moving this Indigenous health clinic forward and now we’re leaving the gravel road and getting on the highway with this recognition, thanks to research and the opportunity to present our model,” she explained. “Now the government is directly called upon to provide systemic transformation by working with friendship centres that are the pillars of these clinics.” 

After years of scraping for funding, the tragic death of Joyce Echaquan last year led to new resources that could position Minowé as part of the broader public health service. As similar clinics are implemented throughout the province, including in Echaquan’s Lanaudière region, Minowé is adding natal services with two doctors beginning in June. 

When an expansion project that began in 2017 is completed, the Friendship Centre will double its size and the health clinic will become more like Ottawa’s impressive Wabano Centre. Although this is just one of “a plateful of projects”, it demonstrates Cloutier’s commitment to tangible change. 

“It sets a very important historical precedent,” Cloutier asserted. “It means financial resources on a permanent basis, which is major for a friendship centre. Solutions exist – Indigenous people and institutions have to be master of their own destiny.”

Photos by Paul Brindamout

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.