Gabriel George, director of treaty, lands and resources for the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, opened the Fall 2020 Installation Ceremony with traditional drumming and singing. SFU Chancellor Tamara Vrooman and President Joy Johnson stand behind, wearing their redesigned regalia.


A time for new traditions: how SFU is Indigenizing convocation

June 21, 2021

In the lead-up to our virtual June Convocation 2021 (June 24-29) we'll be sharing stories from across our eight faculties about some of our amazing graduands. You can read more stories here. Be sure to share your convocation celebrations with the hashtag #MySFUGrad.

By Natalie Lim

The SFU community is no stranger to the sound of bagpipes on Burnaby Mountain. Twice a year, we gather to celebrate our graduates’ accomplishments during convocation ceremonies that showcase SFU’s unique history and traditions by including elements like pipers and claymore bearers.

But if you tune into SFU’s Virtual Convocation this June, you’ll notice a set of updated convocation traditions stemming from SFU’s ongoing commitment to reconciliation. These traditions, incorporated for the first time last fall, include ceremonial drumming and singing at the beginning of each ceremony, as well as redesigned regalia for SFU’s chancellor and president.

“Convocation is one of SFU’s most important events, and looking for ways to Indigenize the ceremony has been a continuing conversation for many years,” says Ron Johnston, director of SFU’s Office for Aboriginal Peoples.

“We wanted to explore how we could honour our graduates while also honouring the long history of the land we’re on, and the Indigenous peoples who have been on these lands since time immemorial.”

Gloria Chu, director of ceremonies and events, says, “Reconciliation is a university priority, so it’s important we evolve our convocation traditions to reflect that—to show respect to the peoples on whose traditional territories the Burnaby campus is situated.”  

One of the most visible changes is the integration of Coast Salish drumming and singing into the beginning of each convocation ceremony.

“The drumbeat is considered sacred when used in ceremony. It’s part of our storytelling and oral tradition,” says Johnston.

“Hearing the drum symbolizes our mother’s heart beat while we were in her womb—it’s protective and familiar and it honours her and the gifts she was given, to bear children and future generations. As such, metaphorically speaking, drumming and singing at convocation sends a special message from an Indigenous perspective about the lands we’re on and the transition that students will be making, having graduated from SFU to the outside world.”

These additions to convocation are only the beginning. The Ceremonies and Events team has recently hired Nicole Taylor-Sterritt, manager of Indigenous event protocols, who will continue looking for ways to incorporate Indigenous protocol and ceremony into university events.

“Indigenizing convocation gives us an opportunity to educate, incite questions and foster dialogue around the history of Indigenous peoples in Canada, Indigenous protocols, ceremonies and reconciliation with our community,” says Taylor-Sterritt.

“I’m excited to help further SFU’s commitment to learning and reconciliation, and to consult with local nations, students, faculty and staff on future Indigenization projects.”

“This a process that is fluid and evolving all the time,” adds Johnston. “Right now, we have the capacity and momentum to move it forward in a really robust way, and I’m excited for what’s to come.”

You can learn more about the SFU’s continued reconciliation efforts by visiting SFU Reconciliation.