Sometimes 13 can be a lucky number or, at least, an impressive one.
It’s the number of graduates in this year’s Indigenous Women in Community Leadership (IWCL) class at the Coady International Institute. A celebration of their achievements was held Aug. 25, during an afternoon ceremony, at the Schwartz School of Business auditorium.
The event included music to honour the women, from the group Wekoqmaqewiskwa as well as Derek Paulette.
The keynote address was provided by Francyne Joe, President of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, while Eileen Alma, Coady associate director, emceed the ceremony.
Coady director and St. F.X. vice-president June Webber, as well as program lead facilitator Karen MacKenzie, also addressed the graduates who were joined in the audience by family, friends and other supporters.
Paqtnkek First Nation Elder Mae Louise Campbell provided an opening prayer for the ceremony and graduate Melissa Hotain, from Sioux Valley Dakota Nation in Manitoba, spoke on behalf of her classmates.
“Behind every successful woman is a tribe of other successful women who have her back,” Hotain said, at the start of her speech.
“I sat quietly and admired the many amazing traits, characteristics, skills and unique qualities each brought to the IWCL program; strong, proud, kind, artistic, confident, respectful, humble, original, wise and full of love and compassion for our families, our values, our chiefs and our nations.”
Joe noted each graduate entered the IWCL program because she has a “passion” for the continued development of their communities.
“I often speak of the resilience, determination and ingenuity of Indigenous women and you fulfill these qualities; and you are about to be held up as role models to others – those ahead of us, alongside us and generations behind us,” she said, as part of her words.
In her words, MacKenzie talked a lot about a trip the class took to Kejimkujik National Park, where they took in part of the Wabanaki Confederacy 2017 gathering and ‘Eighth Fire’ lighting ceremony.
“Learning takes place on so many levels; it’s not just in a classroom but the profoundness of that trip to the Wabanaki Eighth Fire gathering which reminds us that our deepest learnings come from the land because it infuses our spirit,” she said.
After talking a little bit about her experiences, MacKenzie shifted her words back to the graduates.
“It’s about these wonderful women and the steps they’ll take in the future, back in your communities,” she said, addressing the women directly.
“Maybe just continuing your own leadership journey in the political realms, so you have a voice in your community.”
In talking to the Casket after the ceremony, MacKenzie described the women as “amazing.”
“They are one of the most cohesive groups and, I think, going to the lighting of the Eighth Fire really was transformative and inspirational,” she said, emphasizing a part of her speech.
“We took a bundle; sawed a broken teepee pole and created a sacred bundle that went into the fire. It was recognition that we were stepping forward; it’s not a baptism but it’s that kind of step.
“It’s a ceremony, a protocol, that when it’s done and you commit, you see yourself in there, and you have no choice but to step forward as hard as that may be, at times.”
MacKenzie added that each of the graduates said, “they’re going to leave a little piece of their heart in Antigonish, at the Coady.”
For two of the 13 graduates, Antigonish isn’t too far away; Tara Julian from Paqtnkek First Nation and Nadine Bernard of We’kokma’q First Nation.
Both were asked about what they’re taking away from the IWCL program.
“A lot of things,” Julian said. “The asset approach based learning as the key, but also the path because it provided us the tools on how to let people tells us how to help them in their journeys … you get the answers from your people.”
“The most important thing I learned was all the skills which we’ll take back into our communities which will help us to be leaders and develop programs, in a way that will be successful,” Bernard said.
Both women agreed that, as much as they learned from the program – their mentors and facilitators, they also learned from each other.
“Yes, definitely,” Bernard said about that learning aspect.
“And it’s funny, we had our furthest student coming from the Yukon and, really, women from right across the country, and our stories were the same. It was just geography which made us different but that didn’t change our stories at all.”
Julian was asked about being from the community closest to the Coady and whether that meant she fielded a few questions from her fellow graduates.
“I was and I didn’t realize just how much I did know about my location until I was asked those questions,” she said, noting her pride in Paqtnkek came out in her answers.