Ojibway grad says controversy over his ribbon shirt tainted his graduation ceremony

An Ojibway graduate's decision to wear a traditional Indigenous ribbon shirt prevented him from walking across the stage with classmates. The University of Windsor calls it a misunderstanding that will never happen again.

Daniel Falconer's clothing choice nearly kept him from participating in his graduation ceremony

An emotional Falconer shakes hands with university administration during his graduation ceremony. (University of Windsor)

Daniel Falconer woke up the morning of his graduation from the University of Windsor with a sinking feeling in his stomach that something would go wrong. 

"I kind of went the whole morning with a rotten feeling in my gut," said Falconer, who was set to receive his Masters of Social Work earlier this month. 

It was important for me to have these people share this moment and it was being totally tainted by these unnecessary rules and restrictions,- Daniel Falconer, U Windsor graduate

It had nothing to do with a missed assignment, failing grade or an unmarked exam. 

He was worried about potential problems stemming from his decision to walk across the stage wearing a traditional Indigenous garment instead of the graduation robes his peers would wear.

Falconer's ribbon shirt

Falconer is Ojibway and a member of Walpole Island First Nation.

On one of the biggest days of his life, the 25-year-old wanted to wear a ribbon shirt, an Indigenous garment worn for ceremonies. 

As his classmates prepared to walk across the stage at his graduation ceremony, Falconer was pulled aside by a volunteer.

Daniel Falconer, left, stands with Bernie Riley, centre, who made his ribbon shirt on his graduation day. (University of Windsor)

"They pulled me to the back room and told me that I couldn't wear my shirt and that I needed to change," he said. 

"It felt very humiliating," said Falconer, who was met by multiple volunteers and staff in the back room telling him that he had to put on a gown. 

Ceremony 'tainted'

While Falconer was back stage making his case to wear his ribbon shirt for the ceremony, his family sat watching his peers walk across the stage — eventually skipping his name. 

"It was important for me to have these people share this moment and it was being totally tainted by these unnecessary rules and restrictions," he said. 

Falconer was eventually allowed to walk across the stage — but it wasn't until his friends and classmates had already passed. (University of Windsor)

The people in the back room offered him other options like wearing his ribbon shirt under the gown. 

"For me there was no compromise," he said, adding that he was ready to leave the building instead of walking across the stage in anything other than his ribbon shirt. 

"It feels like I'm hiding it a little bit."

University says it won't happen again

The University of Windsor now says the whole incident was a misunderstanding.

The university does have a rule about wearing black robes, but it's aware that some other universities have allowed Indigenous graduates to wear ceremonial outfits instead, said John Coleman, director of communications.

Officials have not made a formal rule change, so the volunteers involved in helping with convocation would not have been aware they should be sensitive to the wishes of Indigenous people.

Falconer said he hopes his story leads to a change in how the University of Windsor handles graduation ceremonies. (Sanjay Maru/CBC)

Ribbon shirt a symbol of experience

Falconer was part of a group that taught powwow dances to students in the Windsor-Essex area and wanted to wear the shirt in honour of the class. 

"The shirt was symbolic of my experience and my relationships and a good way to honour myself and the people around me," said Falconer, who was given the shirt from a fellow University of Windsor student.

"For me it comes down to what the robes mean to me as opposed to what does my shirt mean to me."

Permission granted — eventually

"They eventually grabbed me and told me I could go up," said Falconer. 

But the moment of walking across the stage with his classmates had passed.

"I didn't cross with any of my classmates or people that I knew. I was kind of jammed up in-between the Bachelor of Social Work students," he said. 

As Falconer went down the receiving line he thanked University of Windsor President Alan Wildeman, who was wearing a ribbon shirt himself — underneath his robes.

Falconer said Wildeman sent him an email after the ceremony. 

President responds

"He thanked me for courage for walking the stage," said Falconer.

"He told me that I had changed convocation at the university forever and I hope that's the case. Not just for native students, I think our school is so diverse that it would be incredibly wonderful to see students get to celebrate themselves in the way they choose."

Wildeman's choice to wear a ribbon shirt that day was coincidental, said Coleman.

Wildeman made the choice to honour the maker of his shirt, Bernie Riley, who was also graduating that day and, in fact, had also made Falconer's shirt.

"I know, at the end, everything worked out well, as it should have," said Coleman. "When you're looking at an Indigenous person, this is their true home and native land and it's appropriate that they celebrate their heritage in the way that Daniel did."

Coleman added only Indigenous ceremonial clothing will be considered, because of the special place First Nations people have in Canada.

Falconer, who has not issued a formal complaint with the University of Windsor, decided to share his story to create change.

"I was just looking to spark a little fire in terms of honouring the students who were truly at the university, the grounds that they stand on and even the greater diversity of the campus."