Out of school at age 11, First Nations student perseveres to earn U of A degree

For new University of Alberta graduate Kourtney Boucher, convocation means more than collecting a degree. It means the end of one long journey, and the start of another.

Kourtney Boucher, 29, now looking forward to a career in medicine

Kourtney Boucher graduated Tuesday from the University of Alberta with a bachelor's degree in science. (Richard Siemens/ University of Alberta)

Convocation this month for University of Alberta graduate Kourtney Boucher means more than collecting a degree.

Boucher, a member of the Mikisew Cree First Nation in Fort Chipewyan, Alta., says the milestone also represents the end of a journey that saw her rise above the bullying, depression and poverty that had dragged her down.

Boucher, 29, who lives in Edmonton, graduated from the U of A on Tuesday with a bachelor of science degree. She now aspires to a career in medicine.

"It felt relieving to be finally done," Boucher said, "because I have been in [post-secondary] school since 2007."

Boucher's family moved around northern Alberta and the Yukon during her childhood. School at first was her escape from a life of poverty and alcohol abuse that some in her family struggled with.

But the classrooms and hallways stopped being a refuge when, as an Indigenous student, she became a target of bullying. She remembers being teased for coming to school with a bleach-stained T-shirt. Once, a student chased her and some friends down a street, yelling a racial slur.

"He would actually chase us down the street with a 2-by-4," Boucher said.

'Easy way out'

The weight of the bullying was so extreme, Boucher dropped out of school when she was 11, in Grade 6.

Later, after years of working low-paying jobs, Boucher decided to make a change when she moved to Fort McMurray.

"I took the easy way out and where did it get me? I was working meaningless jobs and I wasn't happy with myself."

She went back to high school, taking upgrading courses at Fort McMurray's Keyano College in 2007 before moving on to the U of A where she pursued a bachelor's degree with the help of student loans and grants.

'Can I be a doctor?'

Boucher's friend Courtenay Badran studied alongside her at Keyano College and eventually at the U of A.

Badran said she has seen her friend struggle and persevere through her studies as the mother of four year-old son. Boucher and her partner, Badran said, also lost their home during the Fort McMurray wildfire in 2016.

"I've really seen her grow over the past few years," Badran said. "All this strength to pursue a post-secondary degree came from herself. She really underestimates how amazing her journey has been."

When Boucher looks back on her decade-long quest for education, she thinks about her late grandmother and the moment when Boucher asked her if she could ever be a doctor.

"I asked her, 'Because I am an Indian, can I be a doctor?' " Boucher said. "She said I can be anything I want to be."

Boucher isn't immediately applying for medical school. She's taking time to find work in the Edmonton school system supporting students trying to meet their graduation goals.

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About the Author

David Thurton is a national reporter in CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. He's worked for CBC in Fort McMurray, the Maritimes and in Canada's Arctic.