May 31, 2019 --
Tori Edwards was part of a history-making day, and she was shining with pride.
Edwards was one of about 80 Grade 12 students who participated in Ts'udelhti, the first-ever Aboriginal Graduation Ceremony held in School District No. 57. Ts'udelhti, which means We Honour in Dakelh Lheidli dialect, happened Thursday, May 30 at Vanier Hall and celebrated the achievements of graduates from schools in Prince George, McBride, Valemount and Mackenzie. The ceremony – rich in First Nations culture – included dancing, musical performances and a symbolic reference to the end of one journey and the start of another.
At the conclusion of the festivities, Edwards reflected on what Ts'udelhti meant to her.
"I feel special, personally, because it's the first one and it's amazing that the Aboriginal students are being acknowledged," said Edwards, who grew up in Prince George and has Gitanmaax heritage.
"I was trying not to cry at a certain point. It was super-exciting for me."
Edwards is graduating from the district's Centre For Learning Alternatives program. She attended Thursday's ceremony with one-year-old son Marc Raphael in her arms and that was highly significant for her as well.
"If it wasn't for him I wouldn't be here (at Ts'udelhti)," Edwards said. "I gave up on my education. I dropped out and just didn't have hope in my future anymore. And then I had my special little guy and there's just no other way to do it – I had to finish my education. I have to do what I've got to do.
"I'm more than proud of myself."
Ts'udelhti started with opening remarks from Lheidli T'enneh Chief Clayton Pountney, who began his own educational journey at one of School District No. 57's historic schools, King George V Elementary. A Jingle Dress Dance by local student Caitlyn McCarville followed. Graduating student Taylor Peterson then gave an address and that was followed by singing and dancing performances by local four-year-olds enrolled in the Prince George Aboriginal Head Start Program.
Some of Thursday's graduates were once Head Start students themselves. The inclusion of those youngsters – and the honouring of them by the graduates – gave Ts'udelhti a passing-of-the-torch feeling.
"I really enjoyed the little kids dancing," said Sheilynn Alfred-Hager, a CLA graduate who was representing the Selkirk First Nation. "It really made me feel good to watch them.
"I honestly didn't know a lot about the whole celebration – they didn't tell us a whole lot – but I thought it was really cool. It was a great experience," continued Alfred-Hager, who will keep building her education at the College of New Caledonia and eventually hopes to study law at the University of British Columbia.
After a moving drumming and singing performance by Lheidli T'enneh musician Marcel Gagnon, who was accompanied by Joshua Seymour and the Southridge Elementary School Choir, the graduates were called to the stage by Nation instead of school. Walking across to receive recognition and symbolic gifts from Pountney and School District No. 57 representatives John Giannisis and Cindy Heitman was a moment few of them will forget.
"It's a really big event, especially being the first time around," said Peterson, who attends Duchess Park Secondary and has Cheslatta Carrier lineage.
"I feel like we are just starting to come onto the scene and getting a little bit more respect as to what we're all about.
"Hopefully this event carries on. It's really cool – it gives some representation to the Aboriginal youth in the community."
The idea for Ts'udelhti came from Lance Potskin of the district's Aboriginal Education Department. He and colleagues Seymour, Lisa Provencher and Noelle Pepin were the primary organizers and they are already thinking about how to make next year's Ts'udelhti even better.
"I think next year we're hoping to get more buy-in from everybody – present it as a community event and AbEd is just one part of it," Potskin said. "We're celebrating these kids and their journey through high school, finishing it and the little ones coming in."
Pountney, the Lheidli T'enneh Chief, regarded Ts'udelhti as a success and as a foundation for the future.
"I think it was an amazing event," Pountney said. "I know we (the Lheidli T'enneh) have kind of been a piece in the background and (the Aboriginal Education Department) has been letting us know how this was going to roll out but I didn't expect it to be that well-initiated. The crew behind it did an extremely good job.
"I believe next year it can get bigger. It can really grow on this and maybe bring more cultural pieces to explore other Nations' cultures and see how they celebrate things like this."
Official community supporters of the first Ts'udelhti were the City of Prince George, the College of New Caledonia, the University of Northern British Columbia, the Prince George Native Friendship Center, the White Goose Bistro and Two Rivers Gallery.
Thursday's graduates represented 33 different Nations.