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#UofTGrad17: Celebrating Indigenous grads at U of T

Celebrating convocation with other Indigenous grads includes recognizing the determination and resiliency it took them to get there, says environmental studies major Trina Moyan (photo by Hannah James)

“It means the recognition and visibility of who we are and that we are here”

Beaded stethoscopes, beats from a traditional drum in Convocation Hall, a special celebration at First Nations House − these are just some of the ways Indigenous 2017 grads are being honoured at the University of Toronto.

“The graduation ceremony is one of my life’s highlights for sure,” said mature student Trina Moyan, who attended the First Nations House grad ceremony on April 7th.

“I was there with my fellow Indigenous students sharing the same struggle that all of us battle against to achieve our academic goals,” said Moyan, an environmental studies major who will graduate this fall.

First Nations House has been hosting a special ceremony for Indigenous grads for 21 years and organizers said that each year the number of grads grows. Professor Keren Rice, interim director of the Centre for Indigenous Studies, said First Nations House provided a home for Indigenous life and scholarship long before Indigenous studies was even a program at U of T.

Shane Kelsey (left) and Nahak Hartmann (right) are 2017 grads from U of T's Transitional Year Program. Kelsey says he's going on to do an undergraduate degree in sociology (photo by Hannah James)

“We need these places where students can go to feel safe and find community, but space also means having presence, it means the recognition and visibility of who we are and that we are here,” said Jonathan Hamilton-Diabo.

Indigenous people, knowledges and culture have been invisible in post-secondary institutions, he said, adding that things are beginning to change.

This year, U of T released its own Truth and Reconciliation report with calls to action for the university to respond to. Hamilton-Diabo co-chaired the steering committee that produced the report.

“This has been an important year for us,” said Hamilton-Diabo.

Read more about the TRC report
Read about the student-created powwow


At the Faculty of Medicine's Office of Indigenous Medical Education, Indigenous Peoples' Undergraduate Medical Education Program Coordinator Dawn Maracle presented beaded stethoscopes to 2017 undergrads Ryan Giroux and Cameron Landry on the day of their convocation.

“It is a symbol of the bridge between culture and medicine, humans and tools, knowledge and its delivery for the purpose of healing,” said Maracle.

Left to right: Dawn Maracle, Ryan Giroux and Cameron Landry are joined by Janet Hunter, director of enrolment services and Faculty registrar

Amanda Carling who manages the Indigenous Initiatives Office in the Faculty of Law, wore her Métis sash as she led Law students in a procession into Convocation Hall on Friday.

“I think if we can bring Indigenous culture and tradition into the non-Indigenous way these things are recognized, I think that's pretty special,” said Carling.

This year, Law honoured three Indigenous grads –Sinéad Charbonneau, Douglas Varrette and Michael Dockstator – with a special drumbeat played after each of their names, as they were called to the stage in Convocation Hall. The drum has been a part of convocation ceremonies for several years, Carling said, and was made specifically to honour grads.

Read more about Charbonneau and other Law grads

Faculty of law's Amanda Carling and Adjunct Professor Kerry Wilkins play a drum that was created to honour graduates during the convocation ceremony (photo by Johnny Guatto)

Indigenous students face many challenges on their journey to graduation, Carling said. Those challenges include struggles with identity and intergenerational traumas stemming from residential schools, racism and the need for financial support.

“So when we accomplish it, we deserve extra celebration,” Carling said. “It's something that's special and should be recognized.”

At First Nations House, Hamilton-Diabo told grads that many of them felt like family and wherever they were going next in life, he hoped they would stay in touch.

“We're very honoured that First Nations House and other departments and faculties have been part of your journey,” he said.

“For each of you that's had this journey, we want to say congratulations.”