Nova Scotia·Video

High school students who lost loved ones in N.S. mass shooting gather to graduate amid pandemic

The community that was home to many of the April shooting rampage victims in Nova Scotia has found an innovative way to celebrate its high school graduates while abiding by COVID-19 public health guidelines.

Emily Tuck, killed in April shooting rampage, would have been part graduating class

The graduating class of Cobequid Educational Centre gathered Friday at the farm of Jim Lorraine after he volunteered to host the drive-in ceremony on his property in in Upper Onslow, N.S.  (Pat Callaghan/CBC)

The community around a Nova Scotia high school left grieving after the province's horrific mass shooting put together a graduation event on Friday allowing students to celebrate without risking the spread of COVID-19.

The idea for a drive-in graduation came from Jim Lorraine, whose daughter Eryn is in Grade 12 at Cobequid Educational Centre (CEC), which is about 40 kilometres east of Portapique, N.S., where the April 18-19 shooting rampage began.

Last month, Lorraine offered to host the event at his family's farm in Upper Onslow, N.S. 

The June 26 ceremony paid tribute to Emily Tuck, who would have graduated from CEC this year but was killed in Portapique, one of the 22 victims who died during the shootings. 

As with most graduation ceremonies, graduates were expected to arrive, take their places, and wait for their names to be called, alphabetically. But in this case, instead of sitting shoulder to shoulder with their peers, graduates waited in cars with their families, parked more than two metres away from each other.

Lorraine said he expected more than 90 per cent of the graduating class of 384 students to attend.

The school issued diplomas to students in private ceremonies before the drive-in event, but students still walked across a stage, one at a time, and collected a swag bag with gift certificates for meals at local restaurants.

Video of the procession was projected onto a screen, about 2.5 metres high by four metres wide, and broadcast for people to watch from home.

Coming together after tragedy

Jeannine Garrett's daughter Amelia is also part of CEC's graduating class. Amelia lost her father and stepmother, Sean McLeod and Alanna Jenkins, in the mass killing.

Garrett said the drive-in ceremony is important, because it will be the only opportunity for graduates to share their accomplishments with friends and classmates. When they collect their diplomas at the school, only immediate family can attend.

"They need to go out with a celebration, I think, especially this year after everything that's gone on with COVID and the tragedies in April and all of that. These kids need to be able to see each other, smile, congratulate each other and send each other off," Garrett told CBC's Mainstreet.

A graduate walks back to the car after receiving his diploma at the ceremony for Cobequid Educational Centre students on June 26, 2020. (Shaina Luck/CBC)

Clare Boudreau, a co-president of CEC's student council, said she's proud of her class for showing resiliency through the challenges of the pandemic and the recent tragedies that have befallen their community.

"The fact that we're still all here together for this graduation ceremony is really an inspiring thing," Boudreau said.

Mallory Priest, the other co-president, said there is a "small sense of loss at not having that very traditional graduation," but she's grateful the class is able to come together at all.

The Cobequid Educational Centre's graduation ceremony was organized by the community. (Shaina Luck/CBC)

Graduates left after everyone crossed the stage, but returned later in the evening for a live DJ set and a fireworks show.

Lorraine said he expected the event will cost about $20,000. The community is raising money through a GoFundMe campaign. 

With files from Mainstreet

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