Indigenous Honour Ceremony helps to keep students in school

Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald Desiree Dreaver speaks at the annual Saskatchewan Polytechnic Indigenous Honour Ceremony on March 8, 2019.

High school wasn’t really Desiree Dreaver’s thing.

The oldest of seven children, Dreaver was raised in Mistawasis by her single mother. When Dreaver was 16, her mother died. She moved in with her boyfriend and her siblings with her father.

At school, she was quiet and withdrawn. She had no one to support her at school, some friends, but not many and was in an unhealthy relationship.

She left class when she wanted, had poor grades and did the bare minimum, just to pass.

“My teachers knew what was going on. No one ever reached out,” she said.

“No one was on my case for skipping class or falling behind, and I was never in trouble. It was almost as if I was being set up to fail.”

Dreaver said her family, and others, assumed she would get pregnant and drop out. She didn’t, graduating high school in 2008.

‘That experience left me with an ugly feeling,” she said. “I did not want to go back to school.”

But ten years later, she did. She enrolled in the Saskatchewan Polytechnic summer transition program.

“I met Shelley, Carey, Gwen and Jennifer,” she said.

“They helped with housing, child care, budgeting, applying for scholarships and so much more. I got over that fear of coming back to school and met some amazing people in similar situations. I felt comfort knowing I would see them in the halls.”

Dreaver is now enrolled in the addictions counselling program. Friday, she spoke to other Indigenous students at Sask. Polytech at the annual Indigenous Honour ceremony.

She spoke about how now, she’s a single parent of two boys, and maintains a full course load. Each day, she gets up, gets ready, then gets her boys ready and takes them to daycare. She attends class, does homework, picks up her boys, comes home, cooks supper, cleans, bathes the boys and puts them to be. Then she has to ensure she gets enough sleep and takes time for herself while making sure her boys get the love and attention they need.

“It’s a lot,” Dreaver said.

“Some days I don’t know how I do it, or if I’ll have the strength to continue to do it.”

She looked up at her fellow students.

“I’m sure many of you can relate.”

She said it’s thanks in part to the supports at Sask. Polytech that she’s been successful.

“I’m in school with amazing teachers, awesome supports, caring classmates and friendly staff,” she said.

“I feel like I have a whole team of people behind me wanting me to succeed, and for that, I’m so incredibly thankful.”

Albert Whitefish performs an honour song at the annual Sask. Polytech Indigenous Honour Ceremony on March 8, 2019. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

Stories like Dreaver’s are why the Indigenous Honour ceremony exists.

Sask. Polytech had noticed that right as their Indigenous students were getting ready to graduate, they’d drop out or quit. They went looking for a way to solve that problem.

“That’s why we do this in March at all four of our campuses,” said Jason Seright, Saskatchewan Polytechnic’s director of Indigenous strategy, “to retain our students and get them all the way through graduation.”

The event is a celebration of the students’ achievements, no matter what stage they are at in their education journey. It starts with a grand entry, and includes a prayer form an elder, the performance of an honour song and a friendship dance song. Each student being honoured gets to walk across the stage and pick up a certificate. The event finishes with a buffet meal.

“Whether they’re in adult literacy or have already finished their Grade 12 and are in another program, it’s to encourage them,” he said.

“When you’re so close you can see it, sometimes there are obstacles and barriers. This is an event where we want to encourage them and promote them on to their graduation.”

The event started small, with five or six people in the cafeteria. Over the last 30 or so years, it has since grown way past that, welcoming hundreds to each of the four campuses each year, and has moved from the cafeteria to the gym.

“It’s pretty exciting,” Seright said.

“We have found success. You can see it on (students’) faces as they walk across the stage, but also in the feedback they’ve given to our staff, where they’ve felt honoured and happy and we acknowledged them. It’s those positive comments from the students that (show us) it’s working.”

Seright said the attendance and the work that goes into putting on the annual ceremony is a way to show the students that someone cares for them. He also passed along that message to the students in his speech.

“By attending school and getting your education, striving for a better life for yourself and your families. … We honour each and every one of you for where you are right now, today.

“it’s important to have events like this where we can lift you up, where we can show you that we’re proud of you. We can show you that we care about you, and we can show that we love you. You make us proud.”

It’s that encouragement that Dreaver also wanted to share with the students, and the many, she knows, have similar stories to hers.

“Yes, my journey hasn’t been the easiest one, and I know too well, there are stories like mine in this room today,” she said.

“I want to say how proud I am of every single one of us for getting up, showing up and getting it done every single day.”