Surrounded by friends, family and the Thompson Rivers University (TRU) Kamloops community, 30 Indigenous graduates entered the Brown Family House of Learning, HL 190, on Tuesday, June 6, walking in rhythm to the powerful drumbeats and singing of the Sage Hills singers.
Some students wore traditional clothing, while others did not, but all were unified with the pride of their accomplishments.
The ceremony included Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Elder Charlotte Manuel, Indigenous Education Associate Director Vernie Clement, master of ceremony and TRU alum Gord Cuthbert, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Chief and Council Tkwenem7íple7 (Councillor) Joshua Gottfriedsen, TRU Chancellor and former Chief of the Simpcw First Nation Nathan Matthew, President and Vice-Chancellor Dr. Brett Fairbairn, Provost and Vice-President Academic Dr. Gillian Balfour, Executive Director Indigenous Education Tina Matthew and faculty and staff of TRU.
“This is a really special day for all of you but also for us,” said Fairbairn, addressing the students. “I know your communities are so proud of you and what you’ve accomplished. And I know all of us at TRU are excited for what you’ve done, and what you’re going to do next.”
“TRU is proud to host the highest number of Indigenous students of any post-secondary in BC,” said Tina Matthew, adding that both TRU campuses were awarding a total of 166 credentials to Indigenous students during convocation week, June 7 – 9.
“We’ve become the university of choice for Indigenous people,” said Nathan Matthew. “That’s something to be proud of, something to be proud to be a part of. Certainly, I am.”
For valedictorian Jesse Young, Juris Doctor (law), of the Métis Nation and Shawnee First Nation, the evening was bittersweet. His father passed away from cancer shortly before Young entered law school and his mother lost her battle with emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease while he was a student.
“Unfortunately, my two biggest supporters, my parents, aren’t here with us today,” Young told his classmates and attendees during his speech. “Although they’re not here, I know they are watching, know they’re proud, and this speech, and all my accomplishments, are dedicated to them. I love you, mom and dad.”
Young recognized those who provided support during what came to be challenging times for him and his family, including law faculty member Nicole Schabus, everyone at Cplul’kw’ten (House 5) and his peers from the Indigenous Law Students Association.
“It was the hardest but probably the best three years of my life,” he said.
Young asked his fellow graduates to recognize how far they’ve come, and the good work they’ll do going forward.
“Today is a testament to our perseverance, resilience and unyielding determination,” he said. “We encountered obstacles along the way, yet through it all we refused to give up. Let us be conscious of the privilege we have received and use it responsibly to help those who have been marginalized. Let us strive for excellence and use our expertise to address the pressing challenges of our time.”
Faculty of Arts valedictorian Olivia Lane, who learned of her Métis heritage only five years ago, was honoured to speak at the ceremony.
“I’m very thankful and excited that my family gets to partake and see something that’s more Indigenous,” she said. “They get to see other nations and how Indigenous people come together, which is powerful.”
Lane also recognized her supporters at TRU, including Métis Elder Sandi Hendry, faculty members Drs. Serena George and Jenny Shaw, and Secwépemc Indigenous Mentor and Communications Co-ordinator Marie Sandy at Cplul’kw’ten (House 5).
“House 5 has been the backbone of my cultural journey at TRU,” said Lane. “I was welcomed there with open arms and was taught how to be a strong Métis woman.”
During the ceremony, Lane provided hopeful words to her fellow graduates.
“Being here today demonstrates how tough and resilient we as Indigenous peoples are,” she said. “You have proven yourselves to be the leaders our people need to flourish. Let us continue to support those who follow in our footsteps.”