Striking a Balance
In 2019, when Kluane Adamek completed her master’s degree at Simon Fraser University, she had the opportunity to attend a celebration called the Indigenous Student Centre’s Honouring Ceremony. The feast saluting Indigenous graduates is a 14-year tradition at the British Columbia, Canada, institution.
Two years later, Adamek returned to the ceremony as keynote speaker—but this time virtually, from her home in the Yukon, 1,400-plus miles away.
Because of COVID-19 in 2020 and 2021, SFU pivoted to host the Honouring Ceremony online. The 2021 event featured Adamek’s address, remarks from SFU’s president and chancellor, and cultural drum and music presentations. It went on to win a 2021 Gold Circle of Excellence Award for online commencements.
“Graduating was a very special experience for me,” says Jesse LeCoy, who finished a bachelor’s degree in sociology in 2021 and participated with his family in both the 2021 Honouring Ceremony and the virtual SFU convocation. “The Honouring Ceremony recognizes and holds up graduates while also honoring families and communities that have supported graduates in their journey.”
LeCoy, who is Syilx Okanagan, is a student life coordinator in the Indigenous Student Centre, which organized the event with SFU’s events team. Planning it took creativity and collaboration, explains Sue Porter, senior associate director of SFU’s ceremonies and events department.
“This event has so many traditional cultural components, like singing and drumming; and the whole family comes: the babies, the elders, members of the community,” she says. “Trying to envision that online was actually quite challenging for our planning committee.”
The first task was grappling with technology. In the spring of 2020, Porter’s special events team (like many globally) were still navigating Zoom event logistics. For that year’s Honouring Ceremony, they used Zoom Webinar and chat, created a photo slide show of graduates, and partnered with a local Indigenous caterer to deliver salmon and bannock to local graduates, as well as with a Vancouver Island cannery to mail nonperishable food and fish to graduates who lived farther away. SFU also mailed students the traditional gifts that would have been presented in person at the ceremony: a special scarf, sage, a wooden pendant, and a cedar headband made by local elders and craftspeople.
By 2021, says Porter, SFU’s staff had learned a lot. For the June 2021 ceremony, SFU still mailed 155 Indigenous graduates their gifts and meals, but instead used Zoom Meeting for more interactivity. They created virtual backgrounds for graduates (so they’d be easy to spot in Zoom gallery view), built a virtual photo booth, and used a tool called Padlet to make a message board of congratulations. SFU prerecorded a local Indigenous group singing, drumming, and dancing, as well as a welcome and blessings from elders.
“Although we couldn’t physically be together for an in-person feast, the ISC and planning committee really took care in emulating a ceremonial feast and protocols for graduates. The speakers and cultural presenters made me feel seen as an Indigenous learner. Words and songs were shared with us to ground us in the experience,” explains LeCoy.
SFU staff estimate that 240 graduates, family members, friends, staff and faculty, and community members participated in 2021’s Honouring Ceremony. Ultimately, the event’s goal (in person or online) is to “celebrate the accomplishments of our Indigenous graduates in a culturally appropriate way. That's a really important part of reconciliation,” says Porter. “[It matters] for students to be able to see their traditions celebrated and honored with the same level of importance as the other ‘pomp and circumstance’ kind of graduation ceremony.”
Forging a path amid challenges was a key theme in Kluane Adamek’s 2021 ceremony address. Adamek (a regional chief for the Kluane First Nations) commended students for persevering through challenges like those brought on by COVID-19 and reckoning with Canada’s difficult colonial history. She called upon graduates to acknowledge challenges, but also strive for balance.
For LeCoy, that was powerful to hear.
“Elders, Indigenous leaders, and peers commended us and reminded us to embrace our strengths and be proud of our achievements, and that our ancestors are proud of us too,” he says. “We shared in the experience of graduation together while being further emboldened and empowered to take charge of our own stories. [We were] sent off in a good way from SFU, ready for the next part of our journeys.”
About the author(s)
Meredith Barnett is the Manager of Digital Communications at CASE.
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