Indigenous graduates set to take part in special convocation traditions

Convocation 2024

Indigenous graduates set to take part in special convocation traditions

Queen’s is helping Indigenous graduates celebrate their accomplishments in ways that recognize their culture.

By Communications Staff

June 17, 2024


Blankets and drums

Blackfoot Peoples Mountain Blankets at the Four Directions Indigenous Student Centre in the lead up to convocation ceremonies, where they will be gifted to graduating Indigenous students.

Sidney Mamakwa, a graduating student in mining engineering, is the first person from his home community – Wunnumin Lake, an Indigenous community of approximately 600 in northwestern Ontario – to earn an iron ring and embark on a career as an engineer. He will also soon be receiving something else to recognize his academic accomplishments: a special gift from the university that honours his culture while he celebrates his graduation from Queen’s.

Mamakwa will be one of 31 Indigenous graduates receiving a Blackfoot Peoples Mountain Blanket as they cross the convocation stage during the upcoming June ceremonies. He will also be leaving his handprint on a canvas that will hang in the Four Directions Indigenous Student Centre. The centre organizes this tradition for Indigenous graduates each year.

“I’ve seen other graduates take part in this tradition, and I’m excited to now be able to leave a handprint myself,” says Mamakwa. “I like that you can choose what colours you leave your handprint in, and I think I’ll be choosing the colours of my First Nation for mine. I’m also planning on wearing my iron ring for the print, since I’m proud of that achievement.”

Canvas with handprints

A canvas with handprints of Indigenous graduates of Queen's at the Four Directions Indigenous Student Centre.

Supporting Indigenous students at Four Directions

The Four Directions Indigenous Student Centre provides community and support for Indigenous students throughout their time at Queen’s. Centre staff, including student staff, organize cultural activities, such as ceremonies and feasts, and the centre offers a welcoming space for First Nations, Métis, and Inuit students to spend time together, equipped with study areas, a kitchen, laundry facilities, and more.

During convocation, Four Directions also coordinates the gifts for Indigenous students on behalf of Queen’s, the Indigenous Council of Queen’s University (ICQU), and the Vice-Provost and Dean of Student Affairs. Most graduates earning their first degree at Queen’s receive a blanket, while those earning their second Queen’s degree typically receive a feather fan. Those earning their third Queen’s degree typically receive a drum. In addition to the 31 blankets, Queen’s will gift four feather fans during this spring’s ceremonies. Indigenous graduates also can choose to wear traditional Indigenous attire in lieu of a gown and hood.

“Convocation is a wonderful, happy time at Four Directions,” says Maura MacKenzie, Interim Director, Four Directions Indigenous Student Centre. “When incoming first years and their families tour the centre for the first time, a central focal point of our tours is our collection of handprint canvasses.  It’s a wonderful experience to gather together with the same students and their families again, to watch them add their handprint as graduates during one of the convocation receptions. Whether it’s blanketing students on the convocation stage or welcoming the new graduates and their supporters to the centre for a reception – it’s really meaningful to the staff at Four Directions to not only be part of a student’s journey through university but also to be part of celebrating the accomplishments of our Indigenous students as they become graduates.”

Staff members from Four Directions, who have often known and supported the graduates during their time at Queen’s, wrap the blanket around their shoulders as they cross the stage. Four Directions then invites Indigenous graduates to a reception following the ceremony where they can take part in the canvas tradition.

Mamakwa credits Four Directions with helping him adjust to life at Queen’s when he entered as a mature student after working for several years as a surveyor in the construction and mining industries.

“Coming from a small community, it could feel overwhelming to suddenly have more than 200 people in a class with me,” says Mamakwa. “But at the Four Directions Indigenous Student Centre I could always find a quiet place to study, and I got to know a small community of other Indigenous students who were at the centre a lot as well. The staff is also quite supportive and make you feel at home. They definitely played a big role in my university experience.”

Mamakwa became progressively involved in Four Directions during his time at Queen’s and served as a fire keeper for several events at the centre. He is planning on bringing several family members, including young nieces and nephews, with him to Kingston to celebrate his graduation this June. Wunnummin Lake is roughly 500 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, so it’s a long trip – first a flight to Sioux Lookout followed by three days of driving. But he says he’s excited for his family to see where he’s spent the last several years and that they’re excited to cheer him on.

Learn more on the Four Directions Indigenous Student Centre and Office of Indigenous Initiatives websites.