Online Indigenous graduation celebration highlights closeness and community

“Each of you is a bright beam of light being launched into the world”
With COVID-19 making it impossible to hold in-person graduation ceremonies, the celebration of Indigenous graduating students was held remotelyNeale McDevitt

In this age of social distancing and remote gatherings, many people decry the lack of human contact as contributing to make the world a colder, lonely place.

It would have done the hearts of those same people well if they had taken in the First Peoples’ House (FPH) graduation ceremony held on June 3.

Held via Zoom in honour of McGill’s graduating Indigenous students the celebration was marked by tears of happiness, songs of celebration, eloquent declarations of love and gratitude, and the palpable pride of parents, partners and grandparents.

“Every time an Indigenous person advances educationally, we all advance educationally,” said Ben Geboe, Coordinator, Indigenous Access McGill, and MC of the event, in his opening remarks. “It is a tremendous contribution you have given to yourselves and to your communities. Even if we don’t come together again, this is a very important thing.”

“Each of us has the power to change the world”

Geboe was followed by Indigenous Graduate Speaker, Tomas Jirousek, himself having earned a BA Honours in Political Science.

Introduced by his grandfather, Jirousek began by praising McGill’s Indigenous faculty and his family for their continued support and encouragement during his studies. He then turned his focus on his fellow students

“Thank you and congratulations to my fellow Indigenous graduates. The Indigenous student community is really the backbone and driver of positive change at McGill,” said Jirousek, recipient of the inaugural Moral Courage in Reconciliation Award for his leadership to change the name of the men’s varsity teams at McGill. “While there aren’t that many of us, in no way does that diminish the impact that we’ve had as a graduating class.

“McGill is not for everyone and we shouldn’t pretend that this is the best choice or avenue for everybody,” continued Jirousek. “I think it is a failure of the Western education system that we place such an onus on forcing ourselves through processes like this. Yes, we need to celebrate and encourage Indigenous students to go off and become nurses, doctors, lawyers, social workers and teachers at universities like McGill. But we also need community leaders, knowledge holders and community organizers. We need to value all types of knowledge and understand that McGill isn’t the right place – nor should it be made to be the right place – for all of these types of knowledges.

“Congratulations to my fellow graduates, this is an incredible milestone,” said an emotional Jirousek in closing. “I know that each of us has the power and opportunity to change the world, whether that is through activism or community engagement or however you choose to spend your lives. It’s honestly been such an honour to get to know all of you and I will truly miss you.”

Tears and laughter

Following the singing of the Eagle Song by Alex Gray of McGill Medicine Bear Drum, Geboe read the names of the graduating students who earned degrees in fields ranging from Commerce and Social Work, to Nursing and First Nations and Inuit Studies.

As per tradition, the celebration ended by opening the floor – or in this case, the screen – to participants. Students and staff, faculty and family members, took a few minutes to share their feelings. Some cried, some laughed, some did both. The messages, though coming from points across Canada, shared the common themes of gratitude, love and community. And, almost to a person, each speaker expressed their gratitude for the First Peoples’ House for providing a “home away from home” during their studies.

Cindy Blackstock, Executive Director, First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, and a professor at McGill’s School of Social Work, spoke directly to the graduating students. “You are graduating at a remarkable time,” she said, in which “around the United States and around the world, we have people standing up for justice and humanity and the right thing.

“I know it sometimes feels dark, the time that we’re living in. I’ve been taught in my own tradition that it’s when it is most dark that the Creator launches the brightest beams of lights,” said Blackstock. “Each of you is a bright beam of light being launched into the world. Bring us forward to another stage in our human existence where no one gets left behind, where everyone gets to live fully as who they are… I cannot wait to see the dreams that each one of you makes possible in the future.”