Graduations symbolize a student’s completion of an important level of education. For my people, seeing the youth move up in their education justifies a major ceremony. My parents always looked forward to celebrating these accomplishments. I can remember seeing all our Elders from my parents’ generation being so happy to witness the graduation of their youth every year.
Celebrating a graduation is so important because a proper education was something Elders had hoped for themselves but were denied. They survived the horrors of the residential school system as children and to them, receiving an education from non-Native instructors meant pain, abuse and even death.
In my parents’ time, attending residential school in the 1940s and 1950s meant that education for Indigenous children was more about indoctrination into a foreign culture. It is a documented fact that the Canadian government ran these residential schools run in such a way as to “civilize’ the Indigenous children by forcibly removing them from their families and their homes. It was all about assimilation no matter the cost.
Education improved later on, but it was always lacking in so many ways in Indigenous communities. Personally, I consider myself fortunate in that I experienced several skilful and caring teachers in elementary school in my community of Attawapiskat. However, there were several instructors in the 1970s and 1980s who still saw Indigenous children as people to dominate, abuse and undeserving of a quality education.
The greatest tragedy we faced at the JR Nakogee Elementary School in Attawapiskat was its disastrous design, with the installation of fuel storage tanks underneath the school. The lines feeding and emptying these tanks broke in the extreme cold winters and over many years leaked thousands of gallons of fuel into the ground. Little did we know as children that several generations of students spent their entire elementary school education above a toxic fuel dump.
I remember the smell of the school. It reeked of some chemical and we all just assumed that it was the smell of institutions like hospitals or a grocery store where they used strong industrial cleaning products. We thought it was normal and that is what a school smelled like. In fact, we were breathing in toxic fuel fumes every day in class.
Education has always been a struggle for my people on the James Bay coast and across Canada. Even now, our educators and advocates must fight for resources and adequate funding for their schools, the teachers and the students. Thankfully, we have more Indigenous educators these days working hard to make sure our students are getting culturally appropriate instruction. My community also built the new Kattawapiskak Elementary School, which now provides a healthier environment for its students.
I’ve always believed that education for Indigenous children should be a government priority. It doesn’t make sense from a historical perspective, after the terrible history we have endured, it just makes good economic strategy in the long term. If we encourage generation after generation of well-trained, well-educated and highly motivated Indigenous youth, they will go on to lead our communities and find solutions to many of the problems and challenges we face. The alternative is far worse. If Indigenous education is neglected or cut back it will leave young people with no hope and no opportunity. This will keep my people stuck in a colonial mindset and that takes us to a dark and sad future.
Education has always been an important part of life for my family and for many others on the James Bay coast. My parents encouraged us to focus on learning in school, to keep up our grades and to arm ourselves with knowledge. They always taught us that gaining as much education as possible would give us the opportunities we would need to survive in the new world. They saw in every annual graduation a new generation gaining more knowledge, confidence and ability.
This time of the year we celebrate all our graduates, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, as we realize the future is in their hands. Our Elders have always understood that these young students will go on to become better, stronger people who will in turn inspire and encourage new generations of Indigenous children. These new generations will move our people ahead while maintaining a balance with one foot in our cultural and traditional ways and the other foot in the non-Indigenous world.
Congratulations to all students and in particular to those Indigenous youth who are proudly carrying our traditions and cultures as they move further in education, employment and leadership. Education is knowledge and knowledge is power.