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Celebrating Indigenous grads

Courtesy Josh Swain

Though many graduates from McGill University hang their diplomas on their walls with pride, recent graduate Josh Swain, who is Red River Metis from Kinosota, is excited to display something other than a special piece of paper to mark his achievements: a beautiful, handcrafted graduation stole designed by Kahnawa’kehró:non Tammy Beauvais. 

“Putting a degree on your wall is a pretty nice memento, but having something that specifically recognizes the achievements of us as Indigenous graduates is just so great,” said Swain, who will be graduating with a master of science in public health. “I’m thinking of getting it framed. Being able to say I’m part of a pretty small group of Indigenous McGill graduates is really something special.”

As part of their graduation regalia, Onkwehón:we graduates from McGill don stoles, with white stoles for diploma and certificate recipients and red stoles for degree recipients. Each stole is stitched with an eagle feather, representing the recognition of the work of graduates, with red stoles also featuring a wampum belt, representing the Six Nations and the Kanien’kehá:ka land McGill sits on. White stoles are detailed with a turtle, a nod to the origins of Turtle Island. This year, 71 graduating Indigenous students received the stoles.

“It’s an honour to be able to do this year after year. It’s a really big part of my life at this point,” said Beauvais, who explained the stoles first came about over 20 years ago, when she was living in Manitoba. “I wanted to give a gift to one of the elders, Connie, who was helping me with my sundance and sweat lodge ceremony. She was so good to me, so I made this piece of fabric – I made her a stole.”

Beauvais gave the gift to Connie Eyolfson, who was Cree-Metis and whose Indigenous name was Rainbow Woman, and imbued in her stitching the spiritual healing that her mentor had taught her. Now, she makes similarly styled stoles as her gift to brilliant new Indigenous graduates, all the while making sure that same healing and connection is in every stitch on every graduation stole. 

“Those students, they work so hard for their degrees, and this is something they’re receiving from the university that shows that, and that honours their work. It’s just something you can’t even put into words,” explained Beauvais, who said that thousands of Indigenous students have now received her stoles after other universities such as Cornell followed McGill’s tradition, commissioning Beauvais to make sets for their graduates. “It’s just such an honour that I get to be a part of all these peoples’ lives. It’s a great connection.” 

In the past, an in-person ceremony hosted by the First Peoples’ House, the School of Continuing Studies, and the Office of First Nations and Inuit Education (OFNIE) saw Onkwehón:we graduates celebrated with a small reception, which was shifted online during the pandemic. This year, it’s staying online to be more accessible to students and their families who are living in farther away communities, though grads were also celebrated with an Indigenous alumni mixer on May 31. 

At this year’s virtual ceremony, faithkeeper Otsi’tsaken:ra Charlie Patton opened with the Ohén:ton Karihwatéhkwen, with keynote speaker Tiohenta Lahache-McComber sharing her experience with immersion school in Kahnawake.

“For us, it’s just so important to acknowledge the amazing achievements of these students and to highlight their perseverance,” said Thomasina Phillips, McGill’s associate director of Indigenous student success explained. She said that the stole ceremony is also a special time for Indigenous students to share their own stories, with many individuals sharing their backgrounds and journeys at McGill. 

“We really want to make visible the Indigenous community at McGill, to specifically highlight them. I feel really honoured to support them, and now we get to celebrate them.”

In Swain’s opinion, the ceremony is also an important way for McGill to take meaningful steps towards reconciliation.

“There was a lot of talk about not only the efforts the school is doing to try and decolonize itself, but also the specific recognition that they want to give to Indigenous graduates because of the additional barriers we face in going to school,” he explained. “I always say that obviously part of reconciliation is acknowledging the wrongs of the past, but a big part is also celebrating our accomplishments, so it’s really nice to see this happen.”

Having mentored other Indigenous students during his time at university, Swain knows that his accomplishments now make him a role model to other Onkwehón:we. Phillips reiterated the importance of younger Onkwehón:we seeing their older peers succeed.

“Knowing that these incredibly strong Indigenous youth are going to take all of this learning and do great things with it, either in their communities or elsewhere, is just very, very inspiring,” Phillips said. 

Though it’s been decades, handcrafting the graduation stoles remains one of Beauvais’ biggest honours. In every stitch, she remembers Connie, the woman who gave her a gift that she gets to pass on. 

“These were teachings that I was given by Connie, and that’s a teaching I get to send on to other people,” Beauvais said. “She got the first one, but we’re all connected.”

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Eve is a reporter with the Eastern Door. She has also covered harm reduction and social justice issues for the Montreal Gazette, The Breach, Filter Magazine, and more.

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Eve is a reporter with the Eastern Door. She has also covered harm reduction and social justice issues for the Montreal Gazette, The Breach, Filter Magazine, and more.