Pride of First Nations

Oct 16, 2003, vol. 28, no. 4
By Carol Thorbes

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With hearts beating as fast as their drums, Joyce Fossella and Judy Lemke sang with pride at the fall's graduation ceremony for aboriginal students, organized by Simon Fraser University's First Nations student centre.

Fossella and Lemke, sisters from the Lil'wat nation near Mt. Currie, north of Whistler, were among 20 aboriginal students recognized at the fall ceremony.

They formed the largest group of graduating aboriginal students at SFU.

Fossella, Lemke and their mother Flora Wallace are members of Tzo' kam, an aboriginal troupe that brings together three generations of singers. The troupe used their voices, drums and movement to honour the aboriginal graduates.

In accordance with the aboriginal tradition of recognizing attainment of higher education, the graduates were crowned with hand woven cedar bands.

Along with 11 other aboriginal graduates (all women), Fossella and Lemke were symbolically awarded their master of education degrees.

The only thing that filled them with greater pride than being honoured was having their mother sing at their recognition ceremony.

“Mom and Dad believed that education is the only way to achieve what you want in life,” says Lemke.

Fossella was accepted into SFU's master of education program after completing a baccalaureate in applied sciences at SFU.

Inspired by her mother's work as a performer, Fossella's graduate research examined how aboriginal music may be used as an educational tool to influence social change, build self-esteem and revitalize culture.

Lemke gained entrance to the same program without an undergraduate degree because of her extensive experience as an employment counsellor and educator.

Her research elucidated how mass media's portrayal of aboriginals hinders the advancement of aboriginal interests.

As mature students, eight years apart, the two sisters inspired each other to keep going when poverty and family responsibilities challenged their resolve.

Like the other aboriginal master of education graduates they are devoted to role modeling what a solid education can do for today's aboriginal youth.

In 2000, in B.C., only 39 per cent of aboriginal students completed high school compared to 77 per cent of non-aboriginal students.

“There is a need for aboriginal educational leaders to help our people improve their lot in life and I know I must take some responsibility,” reflects Fossella.

“First Nations educators must be in every level of education if we are to be in control of First Nations education,” adds Lemke.

As associate deans for education outreach at the Native Education Centre, a private post-secondary facility in east Vancouver, Lemke and Fossella are now perfectly positioned to encourage more of their people to attain higher education.

Standing alongside the two as they were honoured, their mother, who directs Tzo' kam, sang and beat her drum with pride for her daughters.

“In my day, society wouldn't even allow us to finish Grade 12. At Grade 8, we were kicked out of school,” says Wallace, who has worked to improve her own Grade 2 level of education. “Singing at my daughters' graduation made me feel proud.”

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