WIKWEMIKONG—The joyous strains of the honour song performed by drummer Danielle Roy-McDonald escorted a procession of Wikwemikong’s 2013 post secondary graduates led by university valedictorian Pamela Manitowabi and college valedictorian Rene Recollet and two young dancers, a male fancy dancer and a female shawl dancer, as they circled a large crowd of proud grandparents, parents, aunties and uncles, guardians, friends, teachers, councillors and community members all gathered to celebrate the students’ accomplishments.
Few events highlight the spirit of extended family that infuses First Nations communities like the celebrations of educational attainment as much of the community gathers to applaud those who have reached ever higher for the golden ring of knowledge.
“I love this part of the program,” said co-emcee Harold Fox as he stepped forward to greet the procession. “Today is a special day, this afternoon we have gathered to celebrate our post-secondary graduates. We are extremely proud to present our own graduates for the community. Not only does this give us an opportunity to display and recognize the important accomplishments, but it gives us a chance to highlight that our students can be, and will be, successful in whatever educational endeavour they choose.”
“Our community produces some of the best students in Ontario,” continued Mr. Fox, as he highlighted the community’s schools, including the Hub Centre with its innovative Child Care Centre capable of serving up to 80 children aged 2.6 to five and 30 school-aged children in the after school program. “Every one of our Hub Centre staff is qualified and registered with the College of Early Childhood Educators,” he said.
Mr. Fox continued with a profile of the Wasse-Abin Junior School (Kindergarten to Grade 4), which prides itself with First Nations language programming and are the best cross country runners in the North (with trophies to prove it) even as it meets and exceeds the provincial curriculum guidelines as does Pontiac School (Grade 5 to 8). “Wasse Abin High School continues to strive for excellence and has been increasing their graduation rates,” noted Mr. Fox. “Just over the last five years the number of graduates has doubled. Strong teaching, dedicated students and support from the First Nations Student Success Program have helped impact student success. Our students placed silver in the country’s Science Olympics and won a banner for the North Shore boys’ volleyball.” Mr. Fox noted that 500 graduates of the small high school are currently enrolled in a post secondary course.
“Tonight we are honouring over 45 graduates from post secondary programs, from college diplomas, to bachelors and masters degrees, we are proud of our post secondary students who continue to show the world that education doesn’t end after high school. I am proud of our students, I am proud that the foundations begin right here. We are proud to be from Wikwemikong.”
Elder Frank Odjig delivered an invocation in the language calling for support for the graduates as they go on in their quest for higher education. Elder Odjig recalled the Seven Grandfather teachings in both languages: Nibwaakaawin, wisdom; Zaagi’idiwin, love; Minaadendamowin, respect; Aakode’ewin, bravery; Gwayakwaadiziwin, honesty; Dabaadendiziwin, humility; and Debwewin, truth.
Chief Duke Peltier thanked the community for coming out in such numbers to honour the students who have reached their goal. “It is very tough for a lot of our students to leave the community, they have a lot of challenges to overcome,” he said. “It (community support) is very important for them to continue their lifelong journey into higher learning.” Chief Peltier lauded the work ethic instilled in the graduates by their families and community and stressed how important those virtues will be in meeting the economic and social goals of the community. “We owe a lot for this success to our education system,” he said. “Without them we wouldn’t be here today celebrating these successes.”
University valedictorian Pam Iris Manitowabi addressed her fellow post secondary school graduates. Ms. Manitowabi, a graduate of the Native Human Services program at Laurentian University with an Honours Bachelor of Social Work, shared the story of her journey, a story she said was much like that of many other students.
“I began my (university) educational journey in 2010,” she said. “I decided it would be a good time to explore university. Attending university had always been a dream of mine.” Ms. Manitowabi first attended college, becoming a law clerk, a profession she pursued for the next nine years. “In these nine years my life happened and university seemed no longer possible.”
With daughters in tow, Ms. Manitowabi set out to meet the challenges of finding a place to live and child care—but little prepared her for her first day at school.
“I got lost on the big campus of Laurentian University and couldn’t understand a word my profs were saying,” she said. “They used words like epistemology and paradigm. I was instructed to write all my papers in APA format. My response was ‘APA what?’ I felt I had made a huge mistake and did not belong in university. What was I thinking? By the end of the day I broke down in tears.”
“With time and hard work things became easier,” she said. “I kept on top of my assigned readings, or at least tried to. I developed a good network of friends in my classes. With two children to take care of, staying up until 3 am doing homework became my norm, coffee had become my best friend.”
Three years, 120 credits, 66 papers, 11 presentations, 22 exams, 17 quizzes, two case studies, one placement challenge, a 400-hour placement, journal role plays (not what you think, she said), a research proposal and many other group projects later, it is not surprising that time went by in what seemed to be a blink of the eye.
Ms. Manitowabi described her favourite individual project, completing a chart (genogram) of all of her family members back four generations and listing their challenges and struggles—her project stretched into the thousands. “I thought for sure my chart would be the biggest there,” she recalled. “That was until I saw another Wiky student’s chart which took up the entire wall.”
She found that her own challenges could be turned into advantages, however. “Being a mom made me a better student,” she said. “I had to be focussed. I set my priorities, my family first and school second. When asked to go out for a night on the town, my typical response was ‘ain’t nobody got time for that.’ Yeah, they quit asking me after a while.”
Ms. Manitowabi quoted the inspiration of her four-year-old Cassidy for the graduates. “Don’t stop, don’t give up.”
Rene Recollet, the college valedictorian, graduated from the Motive Power Technician and Service program at Cambrian College. Married to Mary Gaiashk and with his parents Louise and Harry Recollet, Mr. Recollect said that he was grateful for the love and support he had received. “I was able to accomplish what I set out to do,” he said. “I am very grateful for it.”
Mr. Recollet spoke of having to leave the comfort zone of his home and community to attend school, venturing out “into a new world full of fresh horizons to pursue, all in search of our dreams. The pains of homesickness must have gripped most of us.”
The sacrifices that families must make to ensure their children can attend school help keep students focussed on their goals, he noted. “The least we could do was excel in our studies to the best of our abilities and make them proud,” he said.
The changes and challenges of attending post secondary studies engendered an unexpected lifestyle change. “We had to cope with living away from home, do our own laundry, keep our rooms neat and, for some, even learn to cook,” he laughed. “But most of all, we had to learn how to interact with people, how to make friends and to know our limits.”
Mr. Recollect said learning to meet new challenges with an open mind was a valuable addition to life’s toolkit. “You can never learn too much,” he said. ‘If you believe in yourself, you can do anything.”
The 2013 graduates receiving awards for completion of their programs included: Marjorie Beaudry, Jocelyn S. Bebamikawe, Samantha Bedford, Dallas Bondy, Andre Desrochers-Caron, Naomi Desrochers-Caron, Elizabeth Edgar-Webkamigad, Caitlin Fox, Jodi Fox, Stacey Fox, Sarah Jacko, Cheyenne T. Johns, Raymond Kisman, Tessa Lachance, Krista Manitowabi, Andy Manitowabi, Pamela Manitowabi, Racheal Martin, Jessica McEwan, Crystal Migwans, Natalie Neganegijig, Dakota Rose Odjig, Dana Ominika, Kristine Ominika, Cheryl Osawabine, Brenda Pangowish, Lisa Peltier, Sherry Peltier, Karen Pheasant, Mary Arlene Pitawanakwat, Megan Powell, Randy Recollect, Rene Recollect, Amanda Richard, Michael Roy, James K. Shawana, Tyrone Shawana, Melanie Snow, Vanessa Souliere, Candace Trudeau, Jamie-Lynn Trudeau, Ruby Trudeau-Simon, Scott Wemigwans and Megan Woods.
Post Secondary Counselling Unit scholarships and bursaries for 2013 included the Dream Catcher Awards to Tyler Aibens, Abigail Dokum-Trudeau, Kelsey Dowdall, Rebecca Fox, Brandon Jacko, Carolyn Jacko, Adam Kaboni, Tiffany Kanasawe, Josh Manitowabi, Elijah Roy, Amy Shawanda and Trish Trudeau.
The Three Fires awards went to Ngwaagan Eshkibok, Crystal Flamand, Shane Flamand, Kyle Francis, Alannah Mandamin-Shawanda, Roxxanne Mandamin, Kayla Manitowabi, Mavis Manitowabi, Joseph Pangowish, Beverly Peltier, Samantha Recollet, Lorena Wabanosse, Alana Wemigwans, Emma Wilkin and Betty VanWort.
The Part Time Award was presented to Valerie Lavallee and Aaron Enosse.
Special awards from community businesses were presented to Jonathan Flamand, Marcellina Peltier, Aaron Enosse, Rene Recollect, Rebecca Fox, Cody Wassengeso, Dallas Bondy, Cheryl Osawabine, Christianna Jones, Alexander Dallas, Mary Agnes Aibens, Kerry Lynn Peltier, Crystal Kimewon, Jessica McEwen, Brenda Pangowish, Natalie Neganegijig, Emily St. Germaine-Lewis, Maxine Wemigwans, Danielle Simon-Newton, Kristine Ominika, Candace Trudeau, Karen Pheasant, Marjorie Beaudry, Ruby Trudeau-Simon, Brandon R. Pitawanakwat, Christopher Aibens, Quinton Recollet and Andre Desrochers-Caron.
A number of memorial awards were presented at the ceremony. The Ron Wakegijig Memorial Award was presented to Caitlin Fox, the Jim Wakegijig Memorial Award went to Jessie Kaboni, the Donald Hamilton Memorial Award went to Raymond Kisman, the Beatrice George Memorial Award went to June Manitowabi, the Logan Eshkawkogan Memorial Award went to Pamela Manitowabi, the Henry J. Peltier Memorial Award was accepted by Scott Wemigwans, the Walter Gonawabi Memorial Award was given to Sasha Pitawanakwat, the Bertha Trudeau Memorial Award was awarded to Sally Recollet, the Bernadette Pangowish Memorial Award went to Chelsea Trudeau, the Mary Beaudry Memorial Award went to Elizabeth Edgar-Webkamigad and the Walter Gonowabi Memorial Award went to Peirce Wemigwans.
Following the presentations, education director Dominic Beaudry delivered his closing remarks. “I am deeply humbled to be here to greet our graduates,” he said. “They are not just the future leaders in our community, but ambassadors for our community. They have chosen wisely in their education.” Mr. Beaudry exhorted the community to ensure that students attend classes each and every day. “The days missed add up quickly between September and June,” he said.
John Dube, board trustee, delivered congratulations to the graduates as well as the teachers in the community “for all the great work that they do.”
The graduates processed from the stage to a final honour song before the assembly gathered for a finger food feast.
Doris Recollet took home the door prize.