Delivered May 31, 2018.
Aaniin. Aanakwadans ndizhinikaaz… minwaa Duncan zhagaanaashmowin ndanoozwin. Ma’iingan ndodem. Chippewas of Georgina Island ndoonjiba. Anishinaabe ndow. Miigwechweninaanag Mi’kmaw. Gchi-miigwech.
In the Ojibway language, I just said, “Hey!”
Thank you President and Vice-Chancellor, Vice-President and Provost of Dalhousie, distinguished guests, and the very reason for our presence here today — the members of the class of 2018.
When President Lahey told me the news I’d be addressing you today, I was delighted because King’s is where I discovered journalism, but he wanted to make sure I knew about how King’s Encaenia ran.
“You may recall from your years at King’s…” he said. “…the ceremony tends to be somewhat formal.”
Formal? Well, of course! It’s King’s! If there’s a reason to don flowing robes and fancy caps, King’s will find it. A fondness for tradition is what so many love about King’s… myself included.
Truth is, I had no idea how this Encaenia would run. Because, I’m a proud King’s alumnus, but I skipped my own Encaenia.
Not that I didn’t bid formal adieu to King’s. I remember some of the occasion. It happened on a Friday. It started bout three o’clock, as “Happy Hour” typically did in the Wardroom. There were sloppy hugs, perhaps a spilled Olands or two. Definitely a chorus of Barrett’s Privateers. To me, it was a rousing send-off to the great unknown.
Had I known I’d stand here, more than two decades later, and have to admit I played hooky, I may have rethought that. I didn’t think twice about the importance of convocation ceremonies… until I myself became a professor at UBC, many years later.
I began to attend the graduations of my own students. I’d shake hands with their partners and parents and grandparents. Oh my. The looks in their faces. The love… the pride… the relief. That look means something.
Cultures throughout the world, throughout time, have marked major life transitions: birth, puberty, marriage, death. In many societies, you aren’t wholly or properly a human being until you’ve undergone rites of passage. These are periods of huge change, from one phase of life to another. Change can be stressful. You may feel it now – anxiety, even fear about your future. But rituals and rites of passage exist to connect us to something bigger than ourselves. A community who celebrate and support us. Graduation is as much their moment, to stand witness. To say, “Yo, you got this!”
Rite of passage ceremonies are disappearing in post-modern Western society. Grad is one of the few rituals that remain. You may or may not identify with the trappings of cap and gown that date back to 12th century scholastic monks. But you are here. Congratulations. It means you’re more “woke” than I was in my twenties, because you recognize it’s important not to ditch your Encaenia.
I’m told that my job, over my remaining eight minutes or so, is to give you advice about your life beyond King’s, life in the so-called “real world.” That’s daunting. It suggests I know something about life in the real world.
I’ve thought a lot over the past few months what I would say. There are many nuggets of advice I could share: Take risks. Learn to fail. Drink water. Exercise more.
But I work in a newsroom, where we try to avoid cliches.
Instead, I’m going to tell you two stories. One about a little boy, the other about an old man.
The story about the little boy is very very old. I heard it in a sweat lodge, in the dark, so if you like, you can close your eyes. There are many different versions. I’ll tell the short one.
This story is about a boy. It happened a long time ago, during a time when the People began to get sick. No one knew why. But first the elders got sick… and then parents started getting sick. The people began to worry. They started fighting over medicines and food. And things got worse – everyone was getting sick, until finally, there was only one little boy left who was healthy. He kept asking questions, about why everyone was sick. The elders had no answers.
So they sent him on a fast, without food or water, to see if he could help the People.
He went on a journey. Some say that journey was four days. Some say it lasted four months. Some say it lasted four years.
But it was a really long journey. The boy faced many hardships. He travelled past the moon, he travelled through the star world. Finally, he came upon the Lodge of the Seven Grandfathers.
“Biindigen,” said the Seven Grandfathers. Come in! The boy explained to them that his People were sick. He asked, would they help? The Seven Grandfathers appreciated the boy acted with respect. They each gave him a teaching, and taught him a ceremony, so he could remember the teachings. Then, they sent him home.
He woke up on a hill. He didn’t know where he was. He tried to remember his vision but he couldn’t. There was some cedar nearby. He ate it. It gave him strength. As he looked up, the sun was rising. It cast a shadow of a half-crescent moon. And the Teachings came back to him.
When the boy returned, he showed the People how to build a sweat lodge. If they followed the teachings of lodge, he told them, it would remind them of the Seven Grandfathers. And that’s how the people got better.
OK – you can open your eyes. My poor mother may be dozing off, but I don’t want the rest of you to fall asleep yet!
The longer version of the story has lessons on how to live a good life… or “mino bimaadiziwin” as it’s called in Anishinaabemowin. Today, I am thinking about that little boy’s dream. When you dream you are in an unconscious state. It ends. You wake up. You’re back in the so-called real world.
But dreams can transform life. For that to happen, you have to connect dreams with action. Dreams and action have to be woven together. That takes determination. Self-determination. Dreams come in all shapes and sizes, and they’re powerful stuff. Like the little boy, pay attention to your dreams.
Like the little boy, I’ve gone on journeys in my life… which brings me to the story of the old man. When I was seventeen, the year before I came to King’s for FYP, I had a foundation year of a different sort. I spent months living on a trapline in Quebec’s far north, with an old Cree trapper, Robbie Matthew Sr, and his family.
The old man could track animals. He was a prolific hunter. His family was rarely hungry. But he never took hunting for granted. He knew animals are shy, and not always easy to find.
When we found a beaver in one of our traps, the old man would sing a song to that beaver. I didn’t know the songs. To me, they seemed tuneless. But these were ancient songs. It was how he’d been taught to say ‘thanks.’ After a feast of beaver, Robbie gave me a plate full of bones. I’d walk down the path to the shoreline, and slip the bones back in the lake.
One day, late in October, when ice was beginning to form on the lake, we were surprised to spot a bear wandering toward our camp. Robbie and his sons and I spread out over the hill, hiding ourselves. The bear was fat, after eating berries all autumn. I could see its breath, steaming out of its nose and mouth. I held my own breath, waiting.
Bears have very sensitive ears, but they have bad eyesight. They can’t see very far. If you stand very still, a bear won’t see you. But they’re hard to hunt, very hard to find, because they know the hunters are out to get them. Bears are smarter than all the other animals. Old-timers say, when a hunter talks to the bear, it understands. It’s up to the bear to decide if it will let the hunter kill him. The bear’s unusual appearance by our camp was more gift than surprise.
We killed the bear. We spent a day gutting and cleaning it. With the odour of cooking bear fat lingering over the whole camp, Robbie brought me a spoonful of oil. He told me to wipe the bear grease in my hair. He handed me three small piles of bones, knotted together with twine and cloth. He told me to hang them in the trees, around the camp. He didn’t explain why. This is just what’s done. It’s about giving back.
Many years later, I understand the land is part of who we are, and “giving back” is engrained in the traditions of all Indigenous peoples. We see giveaways at powwows, to mark birthdays, awards, or an anniversary. The person marking the event gives away what they can, to singers and dancers, to veterans and elders. In BC, where I spent many years as a journalist, when someone dies, people gather at a potlatch and help pay for a funeral. A year later, the clan holds a headstone potlatch and they feed everyone and give away gifts.
For Robbie, for Anishinaabek, giving back is about balance. Balance with each other, balance with animals, with the earth. But if you prefer the opinion of a doctor to an elder, Western science has also confirmed giving is good for you. It stimulates the release of endorphins, which has been linked to improved nervous and immune system functions. You get what’s known as a “helpers high.” Giving increases self-esteem. It helps fight loneliness. So – I urge you – help an old lady across the street. Volunteer. Donate your time or your money or both. As a little girl Anne Frank once wrote in her diary, “No one has ever become poor from giving.”
I’m almost done. I hope you find children and elders in your life – like the little boy, like the old man – because children and elders are our greatest teachers. But I have one last hope for you. Take a moment to look at the people sitting around you, your friends. The friends I had at King’s when I graduated have been my life-long friends. They are people I’ve turned to in times of trouble, people even kind enough to take an afternoon off work to come listen to me drone on today.
So today, my hope for you is to cherish similar friendships many years from now.
It is an honour to share this day with you. I wish you the very best as you go forth from King’s to share your dreams and your gifts with the world. The world badly needs them.
Miigwech bizindawyeg. Thank-you very much for listening.