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2023 Encaenia
Kathryn R. Burton’s Convocation Speech

Kathryn R. Burton's Convocation Speech


Thank you Chancellor Deane Little, Minister Wong, Bishop Fyfe, Board Chair Ruck, President Lahey, President Harvey, Professor Kierans, special guests, faculty members, students, families, friends and all who supported the graduates in front of us today.

To the class of 2023 – take a bow. Revel in this moment. You did it. Some of you did it by planning, methodically executing, reading everything assigned and turning in your papers early.

Others – well, you just winged it. And that’s okay as well.

You started your papers the night before they were due, you skimmed your readings, you requested extensions, and you may have fallen off the chair when they asked you to connect your biblical readings to Baroque art, which may have actually been a question I vaguely recall getting during my oral exam. Congratulations.

To my family – my father, Kevin; my husband, Chad; my mother-in-law, Beatrice; my two sons, Miles and Graydon; my nieces, Tia, Shaya, and Taryn. My nephews, Pasmay, Brandon and Lyle. My sister-in-law, Vicky and her son, Pasmay – I could not be here without you. To my cousin, Karen Pictou, the Executive Director of the Nova Scotia Native Women’s Association. To my Uncle Bobby, cousins, Shari and Shanan, Brent, and Emily Pictou – your auntie-in-residence, I’m grateful for you and all my relations. And, of course, to all of our ancestors who have left us on this heavenly earth and now guide us, wela’lioq.

If you are wondering why I’m up here, I’m wondering the same. I told President Lahey, anything that King’s needs, I’m happy to do. When he asked me to speak today, I said “Anything but that, sir.” But here we are.

I stand on the shoulders of others who have come before me. Dr. Marie Battiste, Dr. Murdena Marshall, who did her thesis at Harvard in Mi’kmaq. Elder Sister Dorothy Moore, an educator committed to not only the church but to her people. Dr. Janine Metallic at McGill. Catherine Anne Martin, an academic force who also housed my brother when he needed a place to lay his head.

My Dad always wanted me to get a PhD so thank you, King’s, for giving me something to check off my to-do list.

You don’t get to choose your wounds in life. You do, however, choose how you move forward. My wounds are ancestral and generational. It’s hard to acknowledge the trauma, but here I stand.

This university kindly accepted me into their doors in 1994 as a Dr. Carrie Best Scholar and allowed me to graduate in 1998.

I did double check that all my bills were paid off while visiting this beautiful campus just a few months ago. I also want to thank King’s for keeping me humble with my first C.

So back to why am I here. It’s the strength of my mother and those who came before me – the trailblazers. I may be a lot of “firsts,” the first Indigenous Chief of Staff for the City of Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh. The first Indigenous Chief of Staff for the Massachusetts State Treasurer, Steve Grossman. But those are merely titles.

Everyone has advised me to tell my deeper story, the personal side. An elder once told me when I speak from the heart, it allows that space for healing. I’m speaking to allow that healing, despite my initial no to President Lahey.

My Uncle Bobby and Aunt Audrey – forced into the Shubie residential school. Yet, as a family, we do not talk about it. Other elders tell me their survival stories and yet so many of those stories are buried with the bodies of those who never came back. We will never know. But we carry forward, honoring them with proper burials when we can.

That healing takes time. It takes patience. It forces one to be vulnerable. My mother got caught in the Bill C31 fight. That bill enabled the federal government to strip my mother’s Native status as well as her children because she married a non-native man. But it also handed over status to non-native women and their children who married Native men. In her letter to the editor dated March 9, 1982, my Mom wrote, “In the final analysis no amount of cost estimates, special studies, or legislation will change my “rightful heritage.”

She pushed against the hypocrisy, but more than that, she would always say never allow the government to define who you are. So what did I do? Naturally, I chose to work in the bureaucracy – to redefine it – at every level – federal, state and local.

I did that to be at the table as policies were shaped, learn how to navigate complicated situations and try to prevent unintended consequences for policies that no one anticipated.

My family lived in a motel after my brother was struck by a car in Gesgepegiag. I recall seeing his shoes on the highway and wondering why he would leave them behind, not realizing the impact of the crash threw him out of his shoes. We didn’t always have food or money. But we had love. We moved – a lot. I was bullied, called a nerd, punched, hip checked, you name it. My sons tell me that where my glasses ended, my braces started. No lies detected.

I have a foot in two worlds and somehow, it’s my mission to be a translator, in the way that my mother was for the court system after the Donald Marshall Jr. Royal Commission. I have lost one brother to cancer. The other is still with us, but lost to mental illness.

We all have our wounds. We all have our stories. But yet we move on.

But I’m here for many reasons. One is to honor my mother who passed in 1999. And my brother who passed in 2019. Both at the young age of 56. The first Encaenia was here, I sat where you were sitting. I would lose my mother a year later to cancer.

She stayed with me in Halifax while I attended King’s to get radiation treatment she could not get in Unama’ki. She stayed alive long enough to meet her granddaughter, Shaya Sark, and to attend my ceremony here. Her hair was gone due to chemo, she was surely exhausted, but she was determined. That’s your first life lesson. I promise a few more. Take them or leave them.

And finally, the commitment that the University of King’s College has taken on reconciliation. It’s easy to say words. It’s another to do. President Lahey, Professor Roache, Emily and the Board of Governors are doing what much larger institutions with more money, people and resources should be doing. But King’s is doing it. Take this not as a criticism to anyone in other higher education institutions; but rather a challenge to step up and join us. Collectively, we are all more powerful to make real, impactful change.

My next commencement ceremony was at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire where I received my Master’s degree. They don’t use fancy words like Encaenia at Ivy League schools, but charge a lot more in tuition.

It was not my graduation year. I was just being nosy and listening. You may have heard of him – Mr. Rogers. He was calming, poised and reminded us to be kind to ourselves and others.

The next speech I heard was my actual commencement year and it was the famous Irish author David McCollough. He shared wonderful wisdom but the one that stood out was to always, always, leave money for the person who cleans your hotel room. If that’s all I impart on you, please thank his memory.

That graduation was special, for it was my brother, Mark Sark, who presented me with my eagle feather in a wooden box he had made. I didn’t know I would also lose him at the same age as my mother. I suppose that’s my next lesson: you never know when your last memorable moments will be with someone, so take heart in your relationships and always say ne’multus which loosely translates in Mi’kmaq to see you soon versus good bye which has a more definitive end.

So what is your classical education going to bring you going forward? Who the heck knows. Did I ever imagine I would be back to where my academic journey started? Did I think I would race around the country, volunteering for Presidential campaigns, run local and state wide political campaigns in the United States – and no, we don’t know what happened in 2016 when Trump got elected – please continue to respect our privacy at this time.

Did I imagine myself taking on the role of Chief of Staff to then Boston City Mayor Walsh and before I started, was told to shut down the city for this new virus that people were concerned about? Absolutely not because I had plans. I had organizational charts prepared. I had transition notes ready, staffing changes, you name it.

If Covid taught us anything, it was that we must be able to embrace uncertainty. The good news is that I got to skip out on the human resources video. That mayor went on to become the Secretary of Labor for President Biden and now heads the NHL Player’s Association, so I got my Canadian street cred back again.

During that shut down, I had a whiteboard next to my desk in City Hall that read, “There is no script. There is no manual. There is no playbook.” And there wasn’t. But when I left, there was.

You may all have plans on next careers, you may have your life mapped out. You may know exactly where you are going and when. Congratulations. I’m still figuring out what I’m going to do when I grow up.

But here is where my classical education came in: the history, the readings, the papers and yes, even those oral exams all came to a head, and I used every single ability to critically think, push back respectfully, move people forward, cite the missing Dante’s circles of purgatory including but not limited to….well, Covid for one.

I can tell you to make your bed in the morning and you have already accomplished something in your day. But that’s been said by Admiral William McRaven. I can tell you that life will be wondrous and you will take on the world – and you will, but there will be challenges. Step into your power. Don’t admire the problem; fix it. Don’t ruminate too long. Make a decision. It’s okay if it doesn’t turn out the way you want. It’s the way it is meant to be.

Okay I’ve got five more minutes to inspire the next generation. I’m going to give it my best shot. Pull the goalie. I don’t want to leave anything on the ice. Here goes.

Always tip well.

Always say please and thank you.

Kindness matters.

Don’t worry if you don’t know.

Fake it until you make it.

Don’t overpack.


Travel if you can.

Tell your loved ones you love them.

Be an ally.

Don’t worry about societal norms or mores, within reason. In other words, don’t get arrested.

Play the long game. Know that people will remember what you said and when — and that can come back to be hugely successful – or a detriment.

Don’t worry about what others think. Seriously. You expend too much energy.

Tell those that you love that you love them.

Be respectful.

Cry. Laugh. Scream. Feel your emotions.

Ask for help if you need it. No one will judge.

Call your friends. Heck, even write a thank you note on occasion.

Pick up the phone. The medium is the message still holds true. Your voice is the message people want to hear.

Print out some of those digital photos. They somehow mean more when you can hold them in your hands.

Don’t be afraid to fail. Don’t be afraid to succeed.

But don’t wonder if you are qualified enough, good enough. You are. Period.

You will have your own story, your own crises, your own sacrifices. Like me, you will look to people who have experience who can provide a sense of history as you navigate your own path.

Sooner than you think, you will be asked to lead.

And when that time comes: Listen and respect all the voices in the room. Tough decisions require tough stands and not everyone will be happy or agree. Your job is to make people feel they have been heard, their positions validated, but stand behind the decision once it’s been made.

And always follow through. One criticism of government is promises are made but no one sees the results. Show the results. Explain everything in a way that everyone can understand.

Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.

I had a sticker above my work computer monitor that read ‘You Got This.’ Did I have it all the time? Absolutely not, but that’s what epitomizes the opportunities and challenges that draw us to our passions and keeps us humble. The values, beliefs and principles that are important to you will keep you grounded.

And don’t forget King’s as you continue your journey. It’s where you came to discover a part of yourself. You will draw on the lessons. I still do. And so will you. Trust me. Look at me now, Mom and Mark.