Now Or Never·First Person

I started my education at residential school. At 58, I've finally graduated

Vivian Ketchum was five years old when she was taken to residential school. She reflects on what it means to finally finish high school.

My journey has been full of challenges but it has been worth it

A woman with grey hair sits on a couch. A pair of moccasins and a high school diploma rest on the coffee table in front of her.
Vivian Ketchum graduated from high school on June 30. (Bridget Forbes/CBC)
Vivian Ketchum was five years old when she was taken to residential school. She reflects on what it means to finally finish high school.

This First Person article is written by Vivian Ketchum who is Anishinaabe community activist living in Winnipeg. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

I am surrounded by various mementoes as I sit in my living room: gift cards, presents from friends, my late son's graduation cap. Looking at them brings home the reality of my graduation: At 58, I finally have my diploma. I am a high school graduate! Maybe if I say the words enough times, it will start to feel real. 

This Red Road (a life journey in Indigenous community) —  to graduation has been a long one. 

My first classroom was in a little blue building at Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora, Ont. I was five years old when I was taken away from my loving family.

I remember the big red pencils with blue-lined paper on the rows of tiny desks in the classroom. After breakfast, the younger students walked over to the blue building. I liked the younger teacher. She smiled a lot and was not scary like the house mother. Inside that classroom, I felt safe from the older kids and the house mother.

Children play in a field in front of a red-brick building.
Ketchum attended Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential school until the school was closed in 1976. (CBC)

After the residential school closed in 1976, I was placed in many foster homes. One foster mother bought me an ugly red track suit for gym in high school using a child and family service clothing voucher. Other kids already made fun of me because I was skinny teenager with thick glasses and bad teeth. The red track suit was just more ammunition for them to use against me. I only attended one gym class before I dropped out of that class.

Then, when I was 16, I was shipped to southern Ontario to a group home. I was in a small town that only had two native kids, and I was one of them. My teachers noticed that I rarely did any homework, but my grades were good. One of them decided to have me tested.

I was struggling to fit in at an almost all-white school- Vivian Ketchum

They discovered that I wasn't being challenged enough and put me in a special class. That would have worked out if I was willing to be challenged. But I was struggling to fit in at an almost all-white school. 

I began to skip classes and fall behind in my grades. I fell in with a bad crowd. I began to secretly drink, which didn't help with my school work. I was 18 and in Grade 9 when I aged out of care. I was put on a plane to go back home to Kenora to attend my father's funeral. Relieved to be going back home with my family even though I didn't finish high school and was returning for a funeral.

I didn't even try to continue my education after that as I was too busy trying to survive. I had my son in my early 20s, decided to try to sober up and entered rehab in a women's shelter. I learned life skills and settled in a new place. 

Then I tried going back to school, but failed again due to the demands of being a single mother. We lived on social assistance and I struggled to provide for my son. So I put my dreams of school on hold until my son got older.

My son's needs came first, and I did what I could to make sure Tyler graduated and had a better life that I ever did. My son was well liked by his friends and in the community. Our home was the place for his friends to gather and enjoy a home-cooked meal. Tyler had plans to become a police officer and to further his education.

A man puts his arm around a woman.
Ketchum, left, with her son Tyler in 2010, before he died from a brain tumour. (Submitted by Vivian Ketchum)

In 2010, Tyler was diagnosed with a brain tumour and died when he was 24. I put my dream of finishing high school on hold after my son passed away. I needed time to grieve and heal from my loss. 

Almost a decade had passed until I felt ready to go back to high school. In 2021, I had applied for a great job that paid well. I had everything they wanted on the job application until I was asked to provide a high school transcript. I didn't have one and the job interview ended on that note.

Getting denied that job was discouraging, but it lit a fire within me. I found the Winnipeg Adult Education Centre near my home. I walked in just to ask some questions, but the guidance counsellor encouraged me to enroll and fill out forms right there and then. My late son's words echoed in my mind: "You've got to carry on."' Those were the words he shared with me when he was terminally ill with the brain tumour.

A portrait of a smiling woman in graduation robes. She holds a bouquet of flowers and her late son moccasins.
Ketchum holds her son’s baby moccasins in her graduation photos. (Submitted by Vivian Ketchum)

I enrolled as a mature student and was assessed at a Grade 11 in English and math. Most students attended school remotely with the pandemic, so class sizes were small and access to the teacher was great. I found that my headset cancelled out distractions and the noise in my head. I was able to focus better. If I got frustrated with remote learning, I could always go back to it later. I was learning at my own pace.

When I finished my last school assignment, I felt a sense of sadness that this stage of my life was done. It was mixed with relief that I set out a goal for myself and actually completed it. And then my friends threw me a graduation party with a surprise guest, which I did not expect at all to happen.

WATCH | Musician Ernest Monias surprises Vivian Ketchum at her graduation party:

Watch Ernest Monias surprise graduate Vivian Ketchum

1 month ago
Duration 1:45
Vivian Ketchum is a residential school survivor who has overcome challenges to now finally graduate high school. Friends gathered to celebrate her with a surprise performance from the 'King of the North', Ernest Monias.

From a little blue classroom at a residential school in northern Ontario to a stone-faced building in Winnipeg, my educational journey has been filled with challenges. But I have reached my dream of getting that high school diploma 40 years later. That piece of paper is going to open doors for me now and in the future. I have discovered more than graduation gifts in graduating; there is a new level of respect from the community.

And I have also fulfilled my son's wish: I have carried on and will continue to carry on.

Vivian Ketchum is an Anishinaabe community activist, a writer, a residential school survivor and as of June 30, a high school graduate.

Do you have a compelling personal story that can bring understanding or help others? We want to hear from you. Here's more info on how to pitch to us.