Lately, when I think about convocation I tear up. I suspect this is precisely the kind of emotional and conceptual force that “convocation” is meant to carry. It is the cumulative end-point of years of study, research, leadership, and athletics (or a combination thereof), an event that draws together disparate kinship networks in the name of celebration. Perhaps tears are the most perfunctory response.
Especially so, for me, because I wasn’t meant to be here. The university – as a concept and a geographic formation – hasn’t historically made Indigenous flourishing possible. And, those of us that do get here are often first-generation post-secondary students. In fact, the high school dropout rate amongst Indigenous peoples in Canada is four times higher than the national average. This is to say that there are sturdy walls that keep Indigenous peoples from getting to the university, walls that have been propped up over centuries in the wake of colonial public policy- and law-making practices.
To be Indigenous and a university student is to be an alien and a shape shifter; is to be a soldier and a civilian all at once. There have been days when I wanted to let the walls swallow the whole of me. Sometimes our hearts only know how to shatter, but we built love from the rubble anyways.
When Indigenous students graduate, we are conjuring bits and pieces of worlds that can hold new forms of collective Indigenous life. The University of Alberta, then, is part of a political movement. During my four years here, I was able to cultivate a social justice ethic and was mentored by instructors and professors attuned to experimental forms of pedagogy invested in making the social habitable for people like me. I learned how to imagine futures I wouldn’t have thought livable four years ago.
At the University of Alberta, there are Indigenous students, staff, and faculty from across Turtle Island, and we have formed makeshift communities of support and care alongside our allies. I know that the lives of Indigenous students have been and continue to be radically changed here.
I couldn’t write this letter as if my advice could be taken up in the same way by each student in the Class of 2016. Instead, I want to acknowledge my fellow Indigenous graduates and the communities that hold them up. I want them to remember that they are construction workers, that they are tearing down walls they were never meant to see the other side of. You are making room for others like us. You are glowing, and it is beautiful.
Most of you in the Class of 2016, however, come from different communities and cultures and histories. So, I want to remind you that the University of Alberta traffics in dares and dreams, and that it asks you to uplift the whole people in the boldest ways. I want to urge the Class of 2016 to extend this ethic beyond the classroom by working to make the world more workable for Indigenous peoples. In a country that was confederated through Indigenous suffering, I can’t think of anything bolder.
Billy-Ray Belcourt, BA (Hons.)
Billy-Ray Belcourt is from the Driftpile Cree Nation. He is a 2016 Rhodes Scholar-elect and completed a BA (Hons.) in Comparative Literature at the University of Alberta. He blogs and writes poetry at nakinisowin.wordpress.com