Honouring the hard work of Indigenous high school graduates

Despite systemic barriers, these three Indigenous youth worked hard, showed up and succeeded.

In anticipation of Dakota Whonnock’s graduation, Shawna Ann Tait planned to weave a cedar grad cap in a traditional way to celebrate her hard work. 

“She was working her butt off. She was one of the regular students who was showing up every day doing her work,” recalls Tait, an outreach worker with Watari Counselling and Support Services Society.

Whonnock, who was Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw from Alert Bay, passed away suddenly in March in Vancouver where she lived. She was just shy of her 19th birthday and before she “aged out” of government care. 

Tait had been meeting regularly with Whonnock as she prepared to transition out of foster care and into independence. 

As part of her grieving process, and to honour Whonnock’s commitment to completing high school through the British Columbia Adult Graduation Diploma Program, Tait began weaving a cedar grad cap. 

She says she thought of Whonnock the entire time she weaved, and how hard she had been working to complete high school. 

“It was healing for me while I was grieving really hard. It was good medicine,” says Tait, a member of the Lax Kw’alaams Band.  

Indigenous high school student Dakota Whonnock has been honoured for her hard work with a woven cedar grad cap.
Dakota Whonnock always participated in the annual Feb. 14 Women’s Memorial March that winds through Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside on unceded Coast Salish territories. Photo by Shawna Ann Tait

Whonnock and many other Indigenous youth worked hard to complete high school this year, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. And while there remains a gap in high school completion rates between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, that gap is closing, according to government data.

According to B.C.’s ministry of education, 71 per cent of Indigenous students graduated from high school in 2019-20, which represents  a 7 per cent increase since 2015-16. 

This despite the systemic barriers outlined by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC). 

The TRC’s calls to action in regards to education include: improving education attainment levels for Indigenous students, developing culturally appropriate curricula, and ensuring equitable funding for both on- and off-reserve Indigenous children. 

Indigenous high school students are overcoming significant racist systemic barriers to close the gap in completion rates.
Screenshot from the B.C. government’s website.

“We will continue to work with Indigenous Rights Holders and partners to tear down systemic colonial barriers in our communities and to improve outcomes for Indigenous learners,” says a spokesperson for the ministry of education.

“Meaningful reconciliation takes time, but we’re committed to getting there with a balanced approach and a real plan.”

Samantha Jones is an Indigenous youth who also recently completed high school, despite having a very busy year.

“This young lady has been at Stz’uminus Secondary School for a short period of time, but has been able to work hard in attaining her necessary credits,” wrote Grade 12 teacher Bert Elliott in a Facebook post on June 16. 

“This despite being a new mother. She worked diligently when she was able to come to class, always willing to participate in class discussions and share her thoughts and ideas.”

Indigenous high school graduates overcome racist systemic barriers.
Samantha Jones gave birth to a beautiful baby girl while she was working to complete high school. Photo by Sasha Sasiorn Photography

“The thought of graduating with my baby was hard,” says Jones, who is Squamish and Snuneymuxw. 

“Every day she gives me reasons to keep going. She’s my inspiration, the light of my life, she makes me smile all the time, and I’ve never been so in love with someone. I hope that one day she pushes herself the way I do to reach all her goals.”

Jones was one of 21 high school graduates to be recognized by the Stz’uminus First Nation in a graduation ceremony on June 19.

“You studied and worked so hard on your graduation,” says Stz’uminus Chief Roxanne Harris in a letter addressed to the graduates.  

“It is now time to bear the fruit of all your hard work and find a meaningful career that fulfills you. Nothing is impossible. Anything is possible when you believe in yourself.”

Walter Fred, who is from the c̓išaaʔatḥ or Tseshaht First Nation, is also graduating high school this year.

He says it makes him feel happy to make his family proud. 

Fred is a boxer on Team 700,  a competitive boxing team for Indigenous youth. According to their website, the team creates “a space in which Indigenous youth can attain tools that they need to successfully navigate life. It is a safe space and outlet and above all it is a space where Indigenous youth can aspire for greatness, inside and outside of the ring.”

Fred, who says the team helped him stay motivated as a student, has a message for other Indigenous youth working to complete high school: “Have patience and have fun.” 


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