The premier of the Northwest Territories and a world-renowned keynote speaker on indigenous rights, along with faculty members, friends and family, honoured the successes of 41 graduates from Aurora College’s Thebacha campus in Fort Smith on Friday during the school’s annual spring convocation ceremony.
According to Glenn Bourke, campus manager and the convocation’s master of ceremonies, this year’s graduating class is one of the largest in Aurora College history.
“You should all be very proud of yourselves,” Premier Bob McLeod told the beaming crowd of graduates decked out in blue robes and stoles made to resemble tanned hide.
“It is a fact that education improves your situation in life. Over 90 per cent of people in the North who have a diploma or degree are employed,” he said. “With an increase in national and international interest in the North for resource development and with devolution just over the horizon, the future for our territories and for all of you is bright.”
Dr. Sharon Venne, a First Nations lawyer, was the keynote speaker. Venne worked 10 years as chief negotiator for the Akaitcho Dene First Nations and NWT Treaty 8 Tribal Corporation, Lubicon Cree and the Dene Nation. She also had an extensive hand in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, providing many of the clauses.
“The first time I graduated from university in the 1970s, I remember I was the only indigenous person receiving a degree that day,” Venne said in her address to the crowd. “Today, seeing so many of our people being recognized like this is a tremendous thing and I’m so encouraged by that and the families and all of you who have come out to support these students.”
Certificates, diplomas and degrees were handed out to graduates from the schools of education, business and leadership, and arts and science.
Alexander Yakupov from Ukraine and Abby Gardiner from Beauval, Sask. gave the valedictory address.
“We did it,” Gardiner said, triggering a wild cheer from the graduates. “We made it through the long hours of writing essays and research papers…It was a long journey, but well worth the ride.”
For many of the graduates, like Maja Haogak of Sachs Harbour, convocation marks the end of their Fort Smith adventure.
“I’ll be going back to Inuvik where I tentatively have a job set up,” said Haogak, who is graduating with a diploma from the Environmental and Natural Resources Technology Program (ENRTP). “It’s exciting. My time at
Aurora has been great. With every new course, I wanted to change careers. I took a geology course, wanted to be a geologist. Then it was a consultant. I loved it.”
Betty Elias of Tuktoyaktuk is also ready to return home to Mangilaluk School with her fresh bachelor of education. The Beaufort Delta Education Council sent a message to be read as the emotional Elias accepted her degree.
“We are so proud of you for leaving your home and your family to pursue the bachelor of education degree. Although we cannot be there to celebrate this special day with you, please know that you are in our thoughts…We are so proud of you and looking forward to your return,” the message read.
“I really felt that deep in my heart,” Elias said afterwards.
This year’s student leadership award went to Katie White, a first year ENRTP student, for her tireless volunteer efforts. White also took home the Town of Fort Smith’s academic achievement award.
Louie Beaulieu of Fort Smith, whose guidance in survival skills are an integral part of what makes Paul W. Kaeser high school’s winter camp a success, was presented with an honorary ENRTP diploma.
The two “students of the year,” presented by the Thebacha Students’ Association, went to Jessica Hval and Felicia Beaulieu.
Further convocation ceremonies for Aurora College students will be held on May 4 in Yellowknife for the North Slave Campus and May 10 for the campus in Inuvik.