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Grads celebrate Indigenous, cultural pride at Ryerson convocation

Initiative encourages graduates of various heritage groups to wear cultural regalia at annual ceremony
By: Lindsey Craig
November 07, 2019
A group of female graduates wearing Kente stoles at Ryerson’s spring 2019 convocation ceremony

The chance to wear Kente stoles at convocation was meaningful for these spring 2019 Ryerson graduates. From left: Zainab Mohammed, Oizamevu Oukanah, Amanda Asirifi, Winnie Wangui and Beaitrice Fynn. Photo credit: Mark Yan/LifeTouch Canada.

When Amanda Gunner-Quinn walked across the stage at Ryerson’s spring 2019 convocation, it was an extra special moment.

Instead of the usual gown and hood – typically worn when a degree is conferred– Gunner-Quinn, an Indigenous graduate, wore traditional moccasins, beaded earrings and a special ribbon skirt she had made with her grandmother.

“She wore it so proudly. She was smiling the whole time, it was beautiful,” said Samantha Mandamin, Aboriginal academic support advisor for Ryerson Aboriginal Student Services.

(At the ceremony, Mandamin gave Indigenous graduates sweet grass with a Tobacco tie, considered traditional medicine in many Indigenous cultures and a symbol of the strength, courage and bravery needed to complete and celebrate their educational journeys.)

Commitment to inclusion, diversity and community

The opportunity for graduates of various cultural groups to wear cultural regalia at convocation has long been in place, but it wasn’t until earlier this year that the practice was actively encouraged.

The move to create greater awareness of the opportunity came following the Truth and Reconciliation Report and is an initiative of Ryerson’s Awards and Ceremonials Committee of Senate.

“Students were always allowed to wear Indigenous regalia or stoles* of cultural pride during their convocation ceremony, but now it is officially recorded and approved as part of the university's protocols and commitment to inclusion, diversity and community,” said Kim McDonald, Ryerson’s manager, ceremonials office.

(*A stole is a cloth, scarf-like garment often worn at graduation ceremonies. It’s adorned with an institution’s colours or insignia, and is worn over the shoulders).

McDonald noted that at the spring 2019 convocation, an estimated 60 students wore cultural regalia – including Black graduates who wore Kente stoles and Indigenous graduates dressed in cultural regalia.

"The university wants grads to know they are welcome to share their heritage and cultural pride while they are celebrating their academic achievements,” McDonald said.

Indigenous history highlights importance of opportunity

For Indigenous students, wearing cultural regalia to help mark graduation from university is especially meaningful given their history in Canada.

For instance, residential schools – the education system into which Indigenous children were forced – stripped children of their Indigenous identity, language and culture.

Today, the right for Indigenous graduates to wear cultural regalia, such as a ribbon skirt, jingle dress, button blankets or various sacred shawls, arm bands, woven textiles or jewelry, is a right that their parents and ancestors did not have.

“It’s a tribute to who they are and where they come from. To be able to celebrate, that is so important.”

Samantha Mandamin, Aboriginal academic support advisor for Ryerson Aboriginal Student Services

“It provides students with a sense of identity and a sense of pride. It’s a tribute to who they are and where they come from. To be able to celebrate, that is so important,” said Mandamin.

McDonald says it’s important Indigenous graduates know they have options in terms of what they can wear at convocation and that these options are intentional and encouraged.

“It means they can come to their ceremony knowing they don't need to have a conversation with anyone explaining what they're wearing and why - they can arrive feeling comfortable and knowing that them honouring their culture in this way is something the university respects,” she said.

Kente stole symbolizes support from friends, family, ancestors

For Chelsea Davenport, who graduated with an undergraduate degree in social work this past spring, the opportunity to wear cultural regalia at convocation was one she couldn’t pass up.

She and her classmates had already been discussing ways to symbolize “their struggle and their success” when they crossed the stage.

Being of Ghanian descent, Davenport thought Kente stoles would be a perfect solution.

She explains that traditionally, Kente stoles were worn in times of extreme importance, often by kings and queens.

“But today, a Kente ceremony acknowledges someone’s achievement, and the support of your community, your friends, your family and your ancestors, and how they helped with your success,” she said. “They also represent both knowing where you came from and where you're going.”

Noting that the Kente stole has evolved to represent Black excellence all around the world, she said, “We thought, why not implement this in Canada and at Ryerson?”

The idea to have customized stoles created came at an opportune time. Davenport and her friends already had a trip to Ghana planned - so they went to a market in the capital, Accra, and had roughly 10 Kente stoles made with “Ryerson” in the design.

Wearing it at convocation was a significant moment of pride.

“It was a way to demonstrate in front of my friends and family…that I am a Black graduate, that I’ve defeated the odds.”

Chelsea Davenport, spring 2019 graduate

“It was a way to demonstrate in front of my friends and family, and in front of people that I don’t know, that I am a Black graduate, that I’ve defeated the odds, I finally made it and on to bigger and better things,” she said.

Davenport and her friends are now working with the university to help ensure future graduates can purchase Kente stoles from Ryerson student groups directly. They hope to have a process in place for spring 2020.

Academic regalia guidelines

Other cultural groups can also have stoles made as long as they meet the university’s regalia guidelines.

“It’s important to clarify that anybody can wear cultural regalia to convocation but an academic gown and hood are required to be worn as well. The exception to this is for our Indigenous graduates - they may choose to wear the gown and hood, they may choose to wear their traditional attire, or a combination of the two," McDonald said.

Guidelines also stipulate that graduates who are members of Canadian Armed Forces, Police Services, Fire or emergency services (paramedics) may wear their professional uniforms.

Items that are not permitted to be worn over or along with academic regalia include country flags, sports team fan items (flags, hats, scarves etc.), student group buttons or other items affixed to the gown or hood.

For more information about what grads can wear at their convocation ceremony, view Ryerson’s regalia guidelines

To learn more about how to order Kente stoles for future convocation ceremonies, please email or follow @sankofa.stoles (external link)  on Instagram.

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