By Susan Hickman. Photos by Alice Beaudoin.
For Carleton University student Olivia Chassin de Kergommeaux, the honouring ceremony for Indigenous post-secondary graduates held at the Museum of History in Gatineau on May 3 was a meaningful tie to her community and helped her honour her ancestors.
The 24-year-old Métis, who completed her BA in Child Studies with a minor in Indigenous Studies, said she has always wanted to become an elementary school teacher.
She was one of seven Carleton graduates among 63 Indigenous students participating in the special ceremony at the museum’s First Peoples Hall.
The event, which featured Thomas Skywalker and the River City Junction Blues Band, as well as community Elders and several speakers, “is an important opportunity for Indigenous students’ accomplishments to be recognized and honoured by the Aboriginal community,” said Irvin Hill, Carleton’s Aboriginal cultural liaison officer. “It also allows students who might not be able to return to Ottawa for Convocation at their respective institutions to share in a more intimate ceremony.”
Graduates from Algonquin College, the University of Ottawa, La Cité, McGill University, Lakehead University and Heritage College in Gatineau, as well as Carleton University, proceeded into the grand hall, led by Thomas Clair and six-year-old Odeshkun Thusky in traditional regalia and accompanied by the Ottawa River Singers.
Thusky’s mother, Meagan Commonda, a fourth-year student at the University of Ottawa, encouraged participants who might be contemplating post-secondary studies to put aside their self-doubt.
“For Indigenous students, culture shock is an issue,” she said. “Our Indigenous ways of knowing are mostly absent or rejected in mainstream education. But you will be amazed at what you can achieve.”
Education, said keynote speaker Murray Sinclair, was important to Aboriginal peoples long before Confederation.
The former judge, First Nations lawyer and chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, reminded the graduates to do something that will make their ancestors proud.
“Events like this are important for Aboriginal people,” said Sinclair. “From the earliest time of contact, there was a desire by our leaders that our young people be educated. While our ancestors were taken away from their families and not allowed to learn who they were, now we know that education is the key to our future as a people and education is the key to reconciliation.
“You are our future,” he told the graduates, “and you have an obligation to the children of today as well as the ambitions our ancestors had for us, to keep in mind you are somebody’s legacy. I look forward to the day when I can hear your names talked about as the heroes of our people.”
In a video message, Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau recognized the graduates’ achievements in breaking down barriers to earn their diplomas and degrees.
“You will continue to pave the way for others,” said the prime minister’s wife. “With your diploma, you will write the next chapter of this country’s history.”
The ceremony was the eighth annual honouring ceremony for post-secondary graduates and the largest yet.
“You can’t find a better backdrop for an Aboriginal ceremony than here at the Museum of History,” said Hill. “The museum and the institutions all worked together to put on this event. The partnership we have with the other institutions shows the students the unity we have and our main goal is to support the students, no matter which institution they choose to attend.”
Leland MacLeod, 31, graduates from Carleton this year with an Honours BA in Sociology, with a minor in Indigenous Studies. It was a bittersweet evening for him as he socialized with friends while preparing to move on.
Clad in a kilt and wearing a red sash embroidered with First Nations colours, the Métis infinity symbol and an Inukshuk provided to all graduates, MacLeod said as a Métis with Mi’kmaq and Scottish heritage, he walks in two worlds.
After receiving his special certificate and congratulatory message, as well as handmade gifts given to all graduates by the attending Elders, MacLeod said he felt honoured. He hopes to be accepted for a research internship at Carleton and eventually go on to complete a master’s degree.