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2024 Encaenia
Connie Walker’s Convocation Speech

Connie Walker's Convocation Speech

Convocation address delivered to University of King’s College Encaenia, Dalhousie Arts Centre, on May 23rd, 2024

Chancellor Deane Little, President Lahey, President Brooks, fellow members of the Procession, honoured guests and graduates.

Thank you all so much for having me today. I’m incredibly grateful to be here with you all in Mi’kmaq territory. I’d like to thank Elder Ann for her words and for sharing the beautiful honour song with us all.

Honestly, this has been such a moving ceremony for me to witness. Seeing you all here today, supported by your family and friends and celebrated for your hard work and dedication. It’s a beautiful thing to witness so thank you so much for having me.

I’d like to take a minute just to recognize my family and community who are also here today. My husband Chuck, my child Sekwan, my cousin Danny and my mother Lorraine Walker who came from Saskatchewan. I’m so grateful to you all for all of your love and support, not just today. I know that they’re here with me, my family, and I honour them with every recognition that I receive. They are my greatest source of strength and also my biggest motivation and so I’m so appreciative for you all.

When I was asked to speak today, I couldn’t help but think back to when I first came to Halifax. I was around your age – in my early 20s, when I left home in Saskatchewan to spend my summer as an intern at CBC. I worked on a television show called CBC Morning. I was a chase producer – it was my job to book guests to come on the show to talk about whatever was happening in the news that day. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t a great intern. I hadn’t gone to journalism school, I wasn’t a news junkie – it was my first time away from home and I was pretty lonely.

I remember that summer, the fisheries dispute between the Mi’kmaq fisherman in Burnt Church and non-Indigenous fishermen was making national headlines. It was a Friday afternoon and I had booked the chief of the Indian Brook First Nation to come on the show the following Monday to talk about the latest developments in the dispute and I remember my senior producer at the time, grilling me about the details: “Did he know where to go?” “Yes.” “Did I double check with him about the time?” “Yes,” I said, “he knows.” And then she said, “’Cause you know those Indians. They’ll go out drinking all weekend and they won’t show up on a Monday morning.” I remember freezing in that moment, in shock that she said the words out loud and quickly looking around to see if anyone else had heard them – but it was a busy newsroom and no one else was paying attention to us.

I wish I could tell you that I didn’t let my status as an intern deter me from calling out her racist belief towards First Nations but I was the only Indigenous person in the newsroom. I thought about talking to our executive producer but I talked myself out of it. I was discouraged but I hoped that I could make things better.

Thinking back on that moment now, I can’t help but wonder what my grandmother would have done in the same situation. Her name was Margaret Helen Walker. She was a residential school survivor who attended the Birtle Residential school in Birtle, Manitoba. She never told me about her experience in residential school. The only thing I really know about it was that she ran away – and she was one of the lucky ones who made it back home – over 200 kilometres away. My grandma was fierce. She faced a lot of adversity but whatever she went through, she was strong and she always fought for her family. She showed us so much love and taught us the most important thing we had was each other. We grew up in a small reserve in rural Saskatchewan – the Okanese First Nation and almost everyone in my family went to school in the nearby small town of Balcarres. Like so many other First Nations, racism was part of our day to day life, something we had to learn to deal with growing up. But I remember my grandma telling us not to let anyone say that they were better than us, to be proud of who we were and where we came from. This was a woman who when sitting in a restaurant and noticed people were staring at us, would stare back and say “Boo!.”

I wish I could have been as brave as she would have been that day in Halifax but I held my tongue. A few years later, I was working in Toronto when a young woman I knew from back home went missing. Her name was Amber Redman. I knew Amber because when I was in university, my cousin Shelley and I coached a volleyball team made up of First Nations youth from our Tribal Council and Amber was one of our girls. When Amber went missing, her family sent out an email with her photo and asked everyone to forward it to their contacts to help spread the word about her disappearance. This was obviously before social media. That same summer, a woman named Alicia Ross went missing in Toronto. At the time, I remember thinking there were so many similarities between Amber and Alicia. They were both bright young women, who had their whole lives ahead of them, who vanished seemingly without a trace. They both had families and communities who were desperate to find them and bring them home but a key difference was that Alicia was white and blond and her disappearance made the front page of the national newspapers and was covered by national media and Amber barely got any local news coverage. At the time, I worked for a show whose mandate was to cover media, so I remember going to my boss to pitch a story about the disparity of the coverage between Amber and Alicia. I wanted to ask those questions. Why were we treating these stories so differently? But I barely started my pitch before she held up her hand and stopped me and said, “this isn’t another poor Indian story is it?”

Looking back, I’m horrified by the attitudes that we Indigenous journalists faced back then. The microaggressions, the straight up racism that led to a false belief that our stories didn’t matter, that Canadians didn’t care and that they weren’t important.

Of course today we know how wrong those assumptions are. The fact that I’m standing here today, given the opportunity to talk to you all, I think is an example of how much has changed. Over the last ten years, I feel like I’ve had a front row seat to a radical transformation in Canada. There has never been this level of recognition about how important Indigenous stories are and there’s never been this level of support for Indigenous people to share them. I wish my grandma could have seen this change. A lot of it began with Survivors like her doing the incredibly difficult work of coming forward to share their stories about what they endured in residential schools. Collectively they helped us understand the truth about Canada.

Their bravery has been met by so many Indigenous journalists and storytellers who have pushed past stereotypes and misconceptions that they faced on their own journeys to help tell the stories of Survivors.

The transformation has allowed me to do something I never could have believed was possible when I first began my career over 20 years ago, just down the road from here. It’s allowed me to now focus exclusively on Indigenous people – our community and our important stories – stories that have now reached millions of people around the world.

I found my voice and it’s much easier now to be the brave person I know my grandmother was but there is still more work to do. There are still communities whose stories are being denied, who face similar stereotypes and misconceptions that dehumanize them, who are not given the space to share or to amplify their elders’ voices. You all will encounter them, on your journeys, wherever your careers take you. And I urge you to be brave. To think of my grandma, Margaret Walker or other inspiring, courageous people in your lives. And to use your voices to speak out.

Thank you so much for listening.



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