May 24, 2019 --
For the first time, Aboriginal students in School District No. 57 (Prince George, McBride, Valemount and Mackenzie) will have the opportunity to attend a high school graduation ceremony that celebrates their journey and achievements in a cultural context.
The School District's inaugural Aboriginal Graduation Ceremony – or Ts'udelhti, which means We Honour in Dakelh Lheidli dialect – happens on Thursday, May 30 at Vanier Hall. Lheidli T'enneh Chief Clayton Pountney will offer a traditional welcome and opening remarks at 9 a.m. When the procession of graduates starts at 10:40 a.m., students will be called to the stage with other members of their Nation.
Close to 80 graduates will represent 33 Nations. If any individual student does not have a delegate from his or her Nation in attendance, that student will be honoured by the Lheidli T'enneh Nation for the day.
The concept of an Aboriginal high school graduation celebration started with Lance Potskin, a School District No. 57 Aboriginal Education Worker.
"Other districts are doing it, and I just thought it was time," said Potskin, who made reference to Aboriginal graduation initiatives at the University of Northern British Columbia and the College of New Caledonia. "I thought it would be a great opportunity for our high school students.
"I think it's an opportunity for them to embrace where they are in their journey and culture."
Noelle Pepin, an Aboriginal Resource Teacher with the district, said Ts'udelhti is "one of the first steps" in honouring the cultural identity of Aboriginal graduates.
"Honouring our students' cultural identity will make them stronger learners and feels like we're moving towards reconciliation," Pepin said.
"I think it's a step in the right direction. We need to keep building it, and we're picking up speed."
Official community supporters of Ts'udelhti are the City of Prince George, UNBC, CNC, the Prince George Native Friendship Centre, White Goose Bistro and Two Rivers Gallery.
The reaction to Ts'udelhti among graduating Aboriginal students has been positive.
"We've had the opportunity to meet with the youth and some of their families," said Lisa Provencher, who works in School District No. 57's Aboriginal Early Learning Program. "They're excited to see this happen."
Ts'udelhti will include a cultural performance by Juno-nominated musician Marcel Gagnon (who was born in Prince George and is a member of the Lheidli T'enneh First Nation) and the Southridge Elementary School choir. The performance is scheduled for 10:25 a.m. and will immediately precede the procession of the graduates. When the graduation procession is complete, local student Caitlyn McCarville will perform a Jingle Dress dance.
Another significant part of the graduation ceremony will be the inclusion of young learners from the Prince George Aboriginal Head Start Program, hosted by the Prince George Native Friendship Center. The program is designed to meet the spiritual, emotional, intellectual and physical needs of Aboriginal preschool children (ages three to five) who live in an urban setting.
"Our school district has been working with Prince George Native Friendship Center on Kindergarten transitions for the last few years. Accordingly, we wanted to include and honour them in this ceremony," Provencher said. "We wanted to create intergenerational experiences. The Grade 12 students will honour and gift the Head Start students as a proverbial passing of the torch, saying, 'We're ending this particular journey and you're starting.'"
Graduating student Taylor Peterson will make a special address to the Head Start learners, who will then deliver a pair of performances for grads and guests.
Pepin noted that some of the 2019 graduates also attended the Aboriginal Head Start Program. The hope, she said, is that the current Head Start learners take some inspiration from the graduates and follow their own paths to high school graduation.
"This group of Head Start children would graduate in 2032, and then they will take on the role of gifting and inspiring the next generation," Provencher said.
The kickoff of the Ts'udelhti celebration will actually happen one day earlier, on Wednesday, May 29, with a meet-and-greet and formal dinner at the Prince George Secondary School cafeteria. The event – co-hosted by School District No. 57 and Lheidli T'enneh Nation – will bring together students, dignitaries from each Nation and the broader school community. Pountney will offer a traditional Lheidli T'enneh welcome at 3 p.m. to start the proceedings. The schedule includes a think tank on how to better support Aboriginal students and an address from a UNBC representative to the graduates.
"We're trying to strengthen connections between the students and their Nation and also their Indigenous identity," Pepin said.
Ts'udelhti ties in with School District No. 57s Strategic Plan in multiple ways, including increasing a sense of belonging, cultural safety and identity for Aboriginal students. It will also help to increase Aboriginal Ways of Knowing throughout the district to support learning for all students, educators, administrators and staff.