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Like all good storytellers, Jake Eberts (who also happens to be one of the film industry's most successful producers) is preoccupied about beginnings. "I've been interested in First Nations issues all my life," he says when asked what inspired him to make movies like Dances With Wolves, The Mission, Black Robe, The Education of Little Tree and Grey Owl. "But the real tipping point came during a recent trip to the Arctic during which I had a chance to sit and talk with the people."
He was particularly struck by the story of an Inuit man who, upon discovering a sapphire deposit, thought it necessary to enlist the help of an American to deal with the business end of the mining operation. "All the guy needed was a little business education and he could have run it himself," says Eberts. "Instead, his ‘partner' took a huge chunk of the profits. Right then and there I realized what a tremendous disconnect exists between our cultures. They have no idea about the educational opportunities that are available to them in the south."
Upon his return home, Eberts enlisted the help of six family members — all McGill grads — to come up with a viable, practical solution to the problem. From these seeds was born the Eberts Endowment, a four-year renewable program in excess of $600,000 that will provide a mix of recruitment outreach, bursaries, scholarships and cultural activities for McGill's indigenous students.
The comprehensive endowment will benefit indigenous people at every stage of their university experience — even before the experience begins. The First People's Bursary Recruitment Fund will finance initiatives geared toward attracting the brightest new students and outlining the possibilities that await them. "The Eberts Endowment will allow us to work with First Peoples' House on better ways to communicate directly with prospective students from these communities," says Sylvia Franke, registrar and executive director of McGill's Admissions, Recruitment and Registrar's Office. "We want them to know about opportunities for studying here and we would like to make it easier for them to consider choosing McGill."
One such opportunity that will be highlighted during recruitment campaigns is the First Peoples' Entrance Bursaries. As part of the endowment, three bursaries valued at $6,000 per year will be available to support indigenous or Inuit students on a renewable basis.
In addition to providing students with financial support, the endowment will also help with the social integration of indigenous students. "Coming to a new city, especially one as large and as culturally diverse as Montreal, can be a major culture shock for native students," says Waneek Horn-Miller, coordinator of the First Peoples' House.
This transition is made easier through House-sponsored activities like powwows, hot lunch programs, elder visits, guest lectures, housing support, academic counseling and a mentoring program. The mandate of the First Peoples' House, to provide indigenous students with a sense of community and a voice, will be enhanced by the endowment. "The Eberts gift will make a tremendous difference," says Horn-Miller. "This endowment will help attract, support and retain promising indigenous students of Métis, Inuit, Native (both ‘status' and ‘non-status'), Maori and Aboriginal heritage."
For his part, Eberts admits a strong link to indigenous people, both as someone who played, hunted and fished beside them as a boy growing up in Arvida, Quebec, some 190 km north of Quebec City, and, less directly, as a member of the same race that all but decimated their way of life. "My wife is convinced that I was some sort of trapper in a previous life," he laughs. "But I also think that I carry a sense of guilt in my psyche for what the white man did to this culture."
The endowment was made in the names of Eberts' parents, Elisabeth and Edmond (BEng'62, BCL'31), two people who greatly influenced Eberts' outlook on life. "My mother was extremely interested in the idea of the intermingling of cultures. She would be absolutely delighted with this."
It isn't surprising, however, that the same visionary who agreed to make the Oscar-winning film Gandhi after it had been rejected by virtually every other studio, sees his current commitment as the first step toward a distant, and more promising, horizon. "I've already been talking to Kevin Costner and Robert Redford about organizing ‘wolf camps' for young indigenous people from the ages of 12 to 14. They need to learn about their heritage and culture. They need a sense of pride in where they come from. When you lose your sense of history, you lose your sense of self."
Even the Eberts Endowment, as generous and exciting as it is, seems more like an appetizer than a main course for Eberts, "Right now, we're a program. Ultimately, I'd like to create a whole School of Indigenous People at McGill. This is a good beginning, but still, just a beginning." If Jake Eberts is to be involved, this is one story that will have a very happy ending.