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Graduation Ceremony for First Nations Students

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BURNABY, British Columbia - Eschewing the traditional mortarboard,
graduates at Simon Fraser University (SFU) wore a ceremonial cedar headband
during convocation specifically for Native Canadians.

Seventeen students donned the hand-woven regalia, which represented
achievement and completion as was appropriated to them from a Haida
craftswoman. The director of the First Nations Student Centre (FNSC), Sasha
Hobbs believes the importance of this regalia offered a symbolism to the
event besides already receiving a degree.

"We wanted to give the students something to take away as a memento of the
day," Hobbs said. "While walking in two worlds, the students can keep their
(Aboriginal) identity."

Located on Burnaby Mountain, overlooking the city of Vancouver and Canada's
picturesque West Coast, Simon Fraser is in the country's top-10 of
university enrollments with 23,000 undergraduates. The main campus is on
the historical lands of the Tsleil-Waututh, Squamish and Sto:lo nations. In
addition to reflecting the ethnic diversity at the school, given the
surrounding environment it's natural, said Hobbs, to have a Native-only
graduation.

"We need to have a traditional First Nations ceremony because this is First
Nations territory. That is protocol and we have a right to practice this,"
stated Hobbs.

The affair on June 1 offered students the intimate opportunity of taking
the microphone for whatever words they wanted to express. Most of the
impromptu speeches were short, tending to give thanks for the assistance
lent by family, friends and faculty.

With his B.A. in Archaeology and Anthropology, Del Blaney, in addition to
appreciating his wife's support through five years, went on to state his
future goals.

"I've applied to continue with my education. I don't know why but I'm
hooked on learning," he remarked.

Previously employed in the timber industry, Blaney switched directions to
pursue academics at the age of 39 taking advantage of provincial retraining
programs. Now 45, he said his degree offered times of stress and
exhilaration but he anxiously looks forward to entering a master's program
at the Faculty of Education.

With the goal of becoming a teacher back in his Sliammon Nation on B.C.'s
Sunshine Coast north of Vancouver, Blaney also has ambitions of entering a
school board's administration. Citing high dropout rates among rural
Aboriginal students, Blaney mentioned part of the problem of educational
settings is they haven't reflected the needs of First Nations.

"The administrative position is to develop a curriculum in schools to help
raise their pride and their true sense of worth within their community,"
Blaney said.

Even with an all-Native graduation at SFU, the university too is on the
receiving end of some stinging criticism. There are only 160 Aboriginal
undergraduates, a proportion far less than the rest of British Columbia
where First Nations comprise 5 percent of the population (most other
post-secondary institutions in Canada also have a disproportionately low
ratio of indigenous students).

Regarded as a liberal cosmopolitan campus, even among other Canadian
universities, Simon Fraser has previously acknowledged it has been slow to
incorporate Natives into campus life and assist with their requirements.
Most of the eight Aboriginal or Metis staff at SFU are employed at the FNSC
while only three professors are of First Nations descent.

Research coordinator at the FNSC, Rick Ouellet, in doling out praise for
the professors and learning environment at the university, is highly
critical of the school's administration. Working on his master's thesis in
Archaeology that involves his Metis ancestral roots in Jasper (Alberta)
National Park, Ouellet pointed out that even recent events at SFU display a
cultural insensitivity.

Earlier this spring a mural which was painted in the 1950s was erected
that, as Ouellet bluntly said, was offensive. Displaying a European
explorer, the Native Indians are depicted as bowing down to this white man.

"It's the result of B.C.'s need to deny its history because if it accepted
the First Nations history, then it would have to admit that the resources
belonged to the First Nations," Ouellet said. "Most of the province is
still unsettled and so there is a need to perpetuate this myth."

That's where the First Nations Student Centre comes in. Developed in 1996
following a provincial report to increase access in post-secondary
institutions for Aboriginal students, every public college and university
in B.C. has an FNSC.

Aimed at promoting Aboriginal initiatives, the center also consults with
academic departments and serves as a community liaison.

"We have become a place where people can go to find out about First Nations
and to be connected (with other resources)," said Hobbs whose center hosted
the graduation.