Old and new pride, tradition for grads

The Class of 2022 is being celebrated with traditions that are both old, including the highly anticipated return of in-person convocations where diplomas are delivered by hand, and new — the distribution of special stoles to Indigenous students.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/06/2022 (222 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The Class of 2022 is being celebrated with traditions that are both old, including the highly anticipated return of in-person convocations where diplomas are delivered by hand, and new — the distribution of special stoles to Indigenous students.

“When I was a kid, I wasn’t very proud of my culture — but as the years have passed, I’ve learned to love myself and my culture, so being able to represent that is huge for me,” said Grace McKay, an Ojibwa student who graduated from Oak Park High School this week.

JESSICA LEE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Grace McKay, 18 (left) and Ava Suru, 17, co-chairs of the Medicine Wheel Committee on Oak Park’s student council after their convocation ceremony at RBC Convention Centre.

McKay donned a matching convocation cap and gown in royal blue, one of her school’s colours, to cross a stage at the RBC Convention Centre on Tuesday. The 18-year-old also wore a new piece of complementary academic regalia around her neck.

For the first time in Oak Park’s history, school leaders this year have gifted Grade 12 graduates who self-identified as First Nations, Métis and Inuit with a silky scarf, on which there are illustrations of an eagle feather, inukshuk, beaded flower and bison.

Shaftesbury High School, a neighbouring Grade 9-12 building, also started the annual practice in 2021-22.

Shaftesbury teacher Rebecca Chambers initially raised the idea to design custom stoles for Indigenous seniors in the Pembina Trails School Division.

Chambers, an alum of Red River College Polytechnic, is frequently invited back to her alma mater to sing the national anthem at post-secondary convocations. In recent years, she has noticed Indigenous graduates sporting red stoles with pride in event crowds — a new development since the Métis educator and musician completed her studies — and wanted to replicate the beauty for her high school students.

A team at Shaftesbury contacted a Métis graphic designer about their vision and desire to include elements in a nod to both their school and division colours and logos, as well as First Nations, Métis and Inuit culture. Once the design was complete, Chambers shared it with her colleagues at Oak Park.

As Chambers watched her students enter the event in their sashes, she said she was surprised that she was overcome with so much emotion.

Jessica Lee Grace McKay, 18, (in blue) a co-chair of the Medicine Wheel Committee on Oak Park's student council, with her family after her convocation ceremony at RBC Convention Centre. (Jessica Lee / Winnipeg Free Press)

“We had shifted a very important and very traditional ceremony in a way that… enriched the ceremony to make it contextualized with who our students are, where we teach, and (acknowledged) that teaching and learning has been going on on this land for thousands of years and we’re continuing that,” she said.

Chambers noted the custom is important because it provides Indigenous learners with a way to proclaim their identity since they do not always have a space to do so in their academic lives — in part, because there are so few of them.

Five Indigenous students graduated from the roughly 175 Grade 12 pupils at Shaftesbury in 2021-22. Oak Park’s graduating class included 10 Indigenous students.

Learners from both schools received their stoles at a special honouring ceremony at a park near The Passage — a historic site that was once occupied by bison herds — on Monday. Elders, dancers and residential school survivors were in attendance at the first-of-its-kind event in Pembina Trails.

“What a great way to set the stage and set a very visual example of success. In literature, having high expectations of students for success is one of the top determinants of student achievement. I cannot think of a better way to do this,” said Catherine Birch, principal at Shaftesbury.

Seven Oaks, Winnipeg, Louis Riel and St. James-Assiniboia are among the local divisions that host graduation powwows to celebrate their Indigenous graduates. Some of the schools in those districts already distribute stoles to Indigenous graduates.

JESSICA LEE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS A special grad stole designed by Oak Park High School students to denote special status in academic or extracurricular achievements.

“I’m just really happy to be alive right now to bear witness to people who are trying to find ways to celebrate the successes of Indigenous students,” said Frank Deer, associate dean of Indigenous education at the University of Manitoba.

A commitment to reconciliation requires a commitment to raising awareness about the Canadian-Indigenous experience and celebrating Indigenous peoples’ accomplishments, Deer said.

Oak Park graduate Ava Suru, who is Métis, said she was speechless Tuesday. After collecting her thoughts, the 17-year-old described walking across the stage wearing something she helped design as “a really proud moment.”

Suru and McKay, co-chairwoman of their student council’s medicine wheel committee this year, had the opportunity to weigh in on the design of their stoles. They adjusted the Shaftesbury design to reflect Oak Park’s community.

Immediate family members, cousins and other relatives of McKay, who hail from Roseau River Anishinabe First Nation and Rolling River First Nation cheered all of the graduates on in ribbon skirts and shirts.

maggie.macintosh@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @macintoshmaggie

Maggie Macintosh

Maggie Macintosh
Reporter

Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.

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