An evolving Concordia celebrates Indigenous graduates

Over the past decade, Concordia University has seen a small but steady rise in the number of Indigenous graduates. Musicians, historians and public policy experts are part of the latest crop.

'I couldn't have made it without support at home and support here,' master's student from Kahnawake says

Wahéhshon Shiann Whitebean, centre, is surrounded by family members at the Concordia University event celebrating Indigenous graduates. (Benjamin Shingler/CBC)

Corey Thomas didn't have much time to celebrate his newly earned degree. He had to lug his upright bass to a gig at Montreal's Fringe Festival.

He has few lines in the show, but mostly, he's in it for the music.

"I'm a terrible actor," said Thomas. "You can write that."

Thomas, who grew up in the tiny Mi'kmaq community of Gesgapegiag in Gaspésie, was among more than two dozen Indigenous graduates honoured Thursday at a ceremony at Concordia University.

This year's group included graduates from a range of disciplines, including public policy, psychology, art history and human environment.

Thomas, for his part, is hoping to carve out a niche as a jazz musician in the city home to one of his idols, Oscar Peterson, after completing a bachelor of fine arts.

He credited the university's Aboriginal Student Resource Centre with helping him navigate the difficult transition to life in Montreal.

Corey Thomas brought his stand-up bass to the event. (Benjamin Shingler/CBC)

Orenda Boucher-Curotte, the co-ordinator of the Aboriginal Student Resource Centre, knows the challenges of adapting first-hand.

She completed a bachelor's and master's degree and was on her way to earning a PhD when she realized the impact she could have on the lives of fellow Indigenous students by joining the resource centre.

They face the same stresses as any other student at university, along with a host of others, said Boucher-Curotte, who took on the job two years ago, after launching the First Peoples' Centre at Dawson College.

"In some cases, they are coming to this institution and it's bigger than their home community," she said.

She said that challenge is compounded by the legacy of the residential school system.

Strength in numbers

Concordia has seen a small but steady rise in the number of Indigenous students over the past decade.

A total of 12 students who self-declared as Indigenous graduated in 2008-09, compared with 29 in the current academic year.

The university estimates the actual number is more than triple that amount, and they are pressing for further changes.

Drummers performed at the start of the ceremony at Concordia on Thursday. (Benjamin Shingler/CBC)

In April, Indigenous faculty, staff and students launched an action plan aimed at "a more equitable and inclusive future."

The action plan was created partly in response to recommendations by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that examined the treatment of Indigenous people by Canada's residential school system.

Wahéhshon Shiann Whitebean, who just completed her master's, was part of the group that created the action plan.

The longtime activist, who also holds a bachelor's from Concordia, researched the history of day schools in her home community of Kahnawake, on Montreal's South Shore.

She is starting a PhD at McGill University in the fall.

"I couldn't have made it without the support at home and the support here," she said.

"There's a bit of culture shock … I'd have to fight the urge to not cross the bridge and stay in the community."

As a mother of three, the oldest of whom is about to enter CEGEP, she wants to make academic institutions more accommodating.

"I hope they will be more inclusive and supportive of our history and language," she said.


Benjamin Shingler is based in Montreal. He previously worked at The Canadian Press, Al Jazeera America and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. Follow him on Twitter @benshingler.