Two years ago, Paasa Lemire moved from her northern Quebec hometown, Kuujjuaq, to Montreal and started attending John Abbott College.

She was a 17-year-old alone in the city. She was homesick, and called her parents every night in tears. Finally, after a year at school, she decided to return home.

She was working at the local courthouse when she heard about a new program offered by the local school board that would allow her to get a college education with a focus on Inuit perspective. Lemire jumped at the chance.

"I know my culture, my history is very important. So I would like to know it," she told CBC Montreal's Daybreak.

Lemire is one of 18 students between the ages of 17 and 38 enrolled in Nunavik Sivunitsavut, the first program of its kind in Quebec. 

The post-secondary program for Inuit students, which translates to "Nunavik our future," focuses on teaching Inuktitut, an Inuit language, as well as humanities, government relations and physical education, all from an Inuit perspective.

Lemire and her peers are spending the year living in the city, taking courses at the Avataq Cultural Institute on Ste-Catherine Street in Westmount.

The program is co-ordinated and implemented by the Kativik School Board, responsible for educating the population of Nunavik, in partnership with John Abbott College in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue. The courses are all CEGEP level and fully accredited.

It kicked off in August and is based on the similar Nunavut Sivuniksavut program run in Ottawa.

The program has been in the works since 2015, when Nunavik regional organizations began working with John Abbott to develop the courses.

Learning Inuktitut, gaining confidence

Almost everyone in Lemire's hometown speaks Inuktitut. But she was always too shy to do the same, she says.

She went to a French high school, where they only had 45 minutes of Inuktitut instruction a day, and she felt like it was rushed.

She practiced a little at home and at school, but not enough to feel confident about her abilities. That's changed since she started in this program.

"Now that I'm here and they have the perfect teachers here, so … I'm feeling more comfortable to speak my own language," she said.

The students take six full-time courses in total, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

Lemire said her favourite is art class and gushed about the teacher, who she said knows a lot and works hard to share her knowledge with her students.

"We're learning so many things we never thought happened, so it's been really eye-opening."

'It's amazing'

Lemire said her second attempt at living alone in Montreal is going better than her first. The culture shock is a big issue, she acknowledged — Montreal is a big city, full of people. Even John Abbott had thousands of students.

She said the advice she received and has heeded is to speak to someone, friends in the city or family members back home, to avoid feeling alone. She said she and her classmates are a close-knit group. 

Nunavik Sivunitsavut

Some of the students already lived in Montreal or spent at least part of their lives in the city, but many of them came from up north to attend the program. (Kativik School Board)

The program lasts a year. Once she's done, she's hoping to return to John Abbott and complete the classes she would need to get a diploma.

She's interested in the legal system and is hoping to work in that field.

Lemire said she wants more people to have an opportunity to come to Montreal.

"I want everybody to go to this program because it's amazing."

With files from Daybreak's Sara King-Abadi