On May 2, First Nations House (FNH), a university-run organization aimed at providing culturally supportive services and programs to Indigenous U of T students, held an event to celebrate Indigenous graduates for the 2022–2023 academic year. 

The event began with speeches and an award ceremony in the main lounge of FNH, followed by a dinner in the Faculty Club. According to Michael White, the director of FNH, the centre has run similar programs for U of T’s Indigenous students and faculty over the past 30 years. In his closing remarks, White encouraged the graduates to visit FNH even after graduating. “Just because you’re graduating or congregating, you’re still a part of our family,” he said.

Graduate reflections

Leslie Wexler, one of the graduating students, is a Métis woman from Treaty Six Territory in Edmonton, Alberta, whose home territory is Waubamun Lake. She completed both her Master of Arts and, most recently, her PhD in English language and literature at U of T. 

She explained that her involvement with FNH extended back to her undergraduate days. “It’s in higher ed that I actually reconnected with my Indigenous identity,” she told The Varsity.

Aaninguaq, who is Inuit, is another graduating student who received recognition during the event, having earned an Honours Bachelor of Science in forest conservation science and Indigenous studies. “First Nations House is actually the only reason I graduated,” they said, in an interview with The Varsity. They explained that at a time when they weren’t sure if they would be able to graduate, a staff member at FNH reached out and provided resources that helped them finish their degree. They also received support from Indigenous faculty members in the Indigenous Studies Department, who pointed them to resources around Toronto.

The event also recognized Sandi Wemigwase, a citizen of Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, who was graduating with a PhD in social justice education from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

Since starting at U of T, Wemigwase has been involved with FNH and frequently attends its events. “This event is definitely one of my favourites,” she told The Varsity. “It’s really nice to see the culmination of all their hard work.” 

Wemigwase explained that her decision to pursue higher education at U of T largely hinged on the support she received from Indigenous faculty. “When I decided I was going to do a PhD… the number one thing for me [was] I had to do it with an Indigenous professor,” she added.