The opportunity for three young men to wear face paint and carry traditional regalia when they walked across the stage during Aden Bowman Collegiate's graduation ceremony last June was a result of the school and families working together.
The students — Nolan Nighttraveller, Teddy Shingoose and Brendon Buffalo — each wore the handprint symbol representing missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) along with regalia such as an eagle feather, eagle fan or medallion that had particular significance for their family.
Vice-Principal Marnie Ross said when Nighttraveller and his family first approached the school with his plan to wear the MMIWG symbol during the ceremony, there were several things to consider. Questions about whether graduation was an appropriate venue or possible alternatives were discussed with input from the family, school administration, and staff members who were organizing the ceremony.
The goal was to be responsive to the request while being respectful of the graduation experience and expectations of other students and families.
"We really thought about how we as a school can grow our learning and figure out how we can be more welcoming for students and families celebrate who they are, even during events where we haven't traditionally seen that (expression of the individual)," Ross said. "When we talked with our staff and our graduation coordinators, they were very welcoming with the idea."
The request was the first of its kind for Aden Bowman and Principal Paul Humbert said it was important for the school to work through the decision-making process alongside the family.
"We want to make sure we are making good decisions," he said. "When you go through the process you end up making the best decision. We feel we did that by working with the family."
Responding to the student's request, communicating within the school and ensuring there was a plan in place for the ceremony was a positive experience, Ross said, with Nighttraveller's grandmother contributing to the learning process.
"She had a really good understanding of how this was different and how it might be something that is new to our school. She shared cultural teachings, telling us the process of what the family did to prepare her grandson to stand up and want to do something that visual. They consulted with their whole family; they talked about the dynamics of perception, about how the students would receive it and how the teachers would receive it. The family prepared their son for all of the different dynamics that may or may not happen when you stand up and do something different."
Working with the student and family who made the initial request allowed the school to have a plan in place to share when additional students and families came forward with the same request.
"The piece was the learning that I knew needed to happen for our staff and figuring out a process of how to do it respectfully so we are being inclusive. It was really important for us to do it in a good way so there wouldn't be any miscommunication of our support for it as a school, or our staff supporting it," Ross said.
"A big part of it was communication with the families. Once the one student wanted to do it, then other students wanted to do it too. I talked with each of the students and then I talked with their families and told them what the school was going to do to support them."
A PowerPoint presentation that was a part of the overall ceremony shared additional information as a way to inform the audience about the three students' reasons for wearing the face paint and carrying regalia. The school wanted to ensure that graduating students, families in attendance, and teachers and staff would understand what was happening.
The opportunity for the students to walk across the stage among their peers and in front of their families was a special experience for all involved.
"It was proud moment for them, as it was a proud moment for me as their principal and our school as a whole," Humbert said.
Ross said the three students felt good about the experience, and the students' families were happy with how the request was handled and how it fit with the ceremony. The school didn't receive questions or negative feedback from other graduating students or their families.
"There may have been a few conversations but there was nothing formal of anyone having an issue with it," she said. "In fact, more people were saying things like 'that's beautiful.' The reaction was positive from what I heard."
Ross feels the lessons learned will be beneficial for her school and other high schools who may receive similar requests. Working together as a school administrative team, with staff and others within the school division illustrated the commitment of the school to growing its learning.
"For us, it is sparking change in terms of asking: how do we make it inclusive for students of all cultures to be able to show who they are in some way? We want families to understand that we will support a celebration of culture and identity. That's important, learning how to do that in a good way. They are kids and we care about them so deeply that we want to do things in a good way and take that extra time," she said.
"We need to know that change is not a bad thing. Change is OK, it's part of our answering the calls. It's about putting us in different situations to make us think differently about the way we do things and to be open to saying we can do the things that we value as a school, but we can also shift things to honour different world views and people and in reciprocity with families."