Known by all young people in the Atikamekw community of Wemotaci, Pascal is the principal of Nikanik High School. Originally from the Lac Saint-Jean region, he was born in 1972 to a Quebecois mother and an Atikamekw father, Arthur Quoquochi, whom he rarely saw at the time. Arthur was one of the few indigenous people to play professional hockey: he was drafted by the Boston Bruins in 1969 after playing for the Montreal Junior Canadiens.
Pascal went through a very difficult time as a teenager. Fortunately, music provided him with an inner strength. Studying music at CÉGEP de Sainte-Foy and Université Laval gave meaning to his life. During those years, he was able to spend more time with his father, meet his extended Quoquochi family and discover the land of his ancestors. This helped him to reconnect with his indigenous roots, which provided him with inspiration and motivation throughout his university studies in musical composition (classical guitar) and teaching. Two of his compositions from that time won first-place awards—including at an international competition in Scotland.
In 1999, he became a music teacher at Nikanik High School in Wemotaci while also pursuing a career as a prolific composer. A number of artists have performed his pieces, which have been published by Productions d’Oz. In 2007, he created “Chaman,” an orchestral piece for 12 guitars and double bass recorded by the group Forestare. An important work in his catalogue, “Chaman” featured on the Association Québécoise de l'Industrie du Disque, du Spectacle et de la Vidéo (ADISQ)’s best instrumental album of 2007.
“Being appointed as school principal in 2013 changed my life,” says Pascal. “For the first time, I was responsible for a large family of people. I had to make sure that everyone benefited from conditions that would allow them to succeed and reach their full potential in a favourable learning environment. I was conscious that each action I took would have an impact on the lives of these young people and the future of the Nation.”
Pascal proudly shares stories of successful Wemotaci students, such as Miguel Coocoo-Chachai, a young leader, runner and law student at the Université de Sherbrooke who is known throughout the Atikamekw Nation for his advocacy on behalf of female victims of violence.
The biggest challenge for the principal is encouraging students to remain in school in an environment where they often have to deal with psychosocial problems, addiction and poverty. He mentions with satisfaction the additional resources recently allocated to First Nations schools, which make it possible to help students with difficulties.
Fundamentally, he explains, “it’s about creating conditions that favour wanting to push yourself and excel among the students. They are the adults of tomorrow and need to feel useful to their families and their community.” For this reason, the school offers some students entrepreneurial projects along with the “traditional” academic curriculum.
The integration of ancestral knowledge is the keystone of the teaching program, including ceremonies, traditional chants and arts, and Atikamekw language and history classes. To signify returning to the people’s roots, a totem animal is chosen for each group.
“I believe that we should do exactly the opposite of what was imposed on us in Indian residential schools,” explains Pascal. “That means creating a positive environment and promoting Atikamekw Nehirowisiw identity and culture.”
“The Indian Act, the residential schools, environmental degradation caused by the forestry industry, isolation, economic vulnerability... all these ingredients conducive to the assimilation of my people were present. But despite the trauma of this cultural genocide, our traditions and language persisted. The history of the Atikamekw people is one of resilience, strength and pride! Our adults and leaders must remain honest and considerate, avoid victimization, believe in everyone’s potential and foster genuine change while taking inspiration from our elders and their wisdom.”
As a mentor of both students and teachers, Pascal has had ample opportunity to reflect on how to succeed in life. His thoughts are worth heeding: “Be engaged and work hard, follow your heart, learn to control your emotions, be attentive to the people around you and contribute to your community.”