"When I walked into the graduation pow wow..."

Indigenous Scholar Heather McRae introduced Verna Kirkness at an event honouring her at the University of Manitoba last week. She was kind enough to share the text of her introduction:

“As a Métis Anishinaabe woman who studied and now works in the field of community-based indigenous education, it is a humbling experience and great honour to introduce someone whose work and life has shaped the field of indigenous education for more than 35 years and who has helped establish new institutions and educational programs that have and continue to lift indigenous students and scholars to academic excellence.

For many years, I was aware of Verna by reputation only. I knew she was a catalyst for extraordinary changes in the field of indigenous education but until I read her book, I never truly grasped the depth of her commitment, the scope of her vision or the relentless drive that burned within her.

If I only knew Verna by her accomplishments, I would be inspired. But, now knowing her story, I feel a renewed sense of hope and strength, and a deeper sense of history and responsibility.

That said, I’m glad I never had the opportunity to read Verna’s book before I met her seven years ago when I was recruited into a the Ph.D. Studies for Aboriginal Scholars program – a program she envisioned and with the help of Deo Poonwassie and several others, made happen. For if I had, it may have taken six meetings, rather than two, to muster the courage to say walk up to her and say hello.

The PSAS program, or PIZZAZZ as Verna likes to call it, was a space of belonging and a source of strength for me.

During one particularly difficult time during my doctoral studies, when I felt compelled to quit school because I felt I was being forced to compromise my values and beliefs, I remember Verna telling me to stay and fight. That, if the issue mattered that much to me, that it would mean that much to other indigenous students and I should stay and see it through.

I needed that encouragement, support and reminder of what it means for all of us doing this work. Whereas some people encouraged me to ignore the problem or deal with it after I graduated, Verna’s words made me feel powerful.

I realized that me, a student that many considered relatively powerless, was in fact, someone who could make a difference. I see this message again and again throughout Verna’s book. Each time a challenge presented itself, she focused on her vision. A sense of purpose, history, and a commitment to a goal greater than herself is what carried her through the difficult times and helped her appreciate the good times that much more.

Verna has inspired many indigenous students to reclaim education as a tool for cultural revitalization and freedom, and to seek to create spaces of belonging for indigenous students within post secondary institutes.

I felt her presence when I walked into the graduation pow wow to the beat of the drum, walking alongside my friend, Dr. Sherry Peden. I experienced the power of her dream when was surrounded by hundreds of indigenous students and families. And I knew what it felt like to experience an overwhelming sense of pride in my cultural heritage when I received my Métis sash and received warm hugs and huge smiles from Aboriginal Student Centre staff. I know her work inspired Laara Fitznor and Laara, in turn, inspired me over 12 years ago when I was her student at OISE.

Standing here today, in this beautiful building, surrounded by so many people working in the field of indigenous education and achievement, I cannot help but admire the carefully tended path that Verna nurtured throughout her life and that so many of us now travel – all of us joined by our commitment to the young people who will later walk this road.

In closing, I would like to mention that I sort of appear in Verna’s book on page 162 when she talks about the PIZZAZZ program: ‘In 2012, we had two graduates from the program. Deo and I took part in the academic procession at graduation and acted like proud parents. Seeing a dream come true is very rewarding. There are sixteen or so to graduate. These bright, enthusiastic PhD students have a vested interest in the advancement of Aboriginal peoples. This is reflected in the positions they hold and the research questions they pursue, as they search for answers to challenges faced by our people.’

Although it has been almost two years since Sherry and I convocated, I want to say thank you – to Verna and Deo for acting like our proud parents. I cannot imagine a greater honour than to be considered part of your family. Chii Meegwetch!”

Heather McRae is a Métis-Anishinaabe woman with French and Scottish ancestry. She is an Indigenous Scholar with the Faculty of Kinesiology and Recreation Management’s Rec and Read mentor program, a communal mentorship program involving children, youth and adult allies from diverse cultural backgrounds.