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Gabriel given honorary doctorate 

Courtesy UQAM

Kanehsata’kehró:non Katsi’tsakwas Ellen Gabriel was proud to accept an honourary doctorate from the Université du Québec a Montréal (UQAM) last week, addressing the university’s graduating students while draped in a keffiyeh. 

“It was an amazing night, and it’s just such an amazing feeling to be bestowed with such a distinctive honour,” said Gabriel, who was given her honorary doctorate at the faculty of arts and science graduation on June 8 in downtown Montreal. 

Gabriel’s speech detailed how education has historically been used as a tool to oppress Onkwehón:we, sharing her own family’s experience with residential and day schools, and her personal accounts of racism she experienced in high schools outside of Kanehsatake.  

“The history of Western education and the Indigenous people of Turtle Island is a difficult one,” Gabriel said in her speech, which she gave in French.  

“Education was a tool to destroy our languages, our cultures, and alienate us from our Native lands, attacking our families and our identities.” 

Rachelle Chagnon, UQAM’s dean of political science and law, said that Gabriel was an ideal candidate for the honorary doctorate, given the university’s own history of activism that reflects Gabriel’s own advocacy work throughout the years. 

“We have students that will always be very strong in their opinion, and they’re vocal about it. We’re renowned for that, and Ellen fits in with the way we are,” Chagnon said.  

The process of being selected for an honourary degree is rigorous. First, Gabriel was nominated by her long-time friend, professor Bernard Duhaime, who teaches international law at UQAM. Then, other professors and UQAM’s board of directors and the faculty council considered her nomination for a vote. 

The vote in favour of Gabriel’s selection was unanimous. 

“It was extremely easy to convince everyone that she was the right person for the honour,” Chagnon said. “And it was obvious from the students’ reactions to her speech that they received it well.” 

Fellow Kanehsata’kehró:non Clifton Ariwakehte Nicholas watched Gabriel’s speech from home and was moved to hear her speak.  

“Academia has a lot to atone for when it comes to Indigenous people. We’ve been used so often to advance the agendas of other academics and intellectuals, so when somebody like Ellen gets this, it opens up doors,” he said. “It opens up an opportunity to teach and have a better understanding of what we need as people.” 

Gabriel also chose to highlight the struggle for Palestinian liberation in her speech. 

“I mentioned the fact that in Gaza, there are no more universities. There should have been a graduating class of 2024 there, but there’s not, so I wanted to acknowledge the times we’re living in,” said Gabriel, whose support for the Palestinian people was made visible through the keffiyeh (traditional scarf) worn around her shoulders. 

“I think it would have been irresponsible of me not to mention it, and not to stand in solidarity with Palestinians and other oppressed people. Because what we see today is a movement where oppressed people are coming together.” 

UQAM’s students rose to their feet for a standing ovation at the end of her speech, as she raised her hand in the air and gave a peace sign in acknowledgement. 

“It’s even more precious to have this honour from a university that has a reputation for social justice and human rights, to be able to say what I wanted to freely without them censoring me is a tribute to their openness and their leadership,” Gabriel said. “Not every university will do that. I’m really honoured.” 


This article was originally published in print on June 14 in issue 33.24 of The Eastern Door.

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.