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Indigenous students celebrated at awards banquet with Orange Shirt Society founder

Dr. Phyllis Webstad returns to Niagara to meet scholarship recipients

On June 5, Niagara College hosted its first-ever Indigenous Student Awards Banquet to celebrate the outstanding achievements of Indigenous students at the College.

January Rogers, a Mohawk/Tuscarora poet, media producer, performance and sound artist and owner of Ojistoh Publishing and Productions, emceed the banquet, themed “Inspiring Futures,” which was held at Club Roma in St. Catharines.

In addition to recognizing award-winning students, NC’s Indigenous Education department established the event to foster a sense of belonging, empowerment, and encouragement among the students, reinforcing the value of their contributions to both academia and society.

NC President Sean Kennedy attended the event, along with other members from the College’s Executive Team, to honour the student award recipients and thank their supporters. “Tonight is a celebration of courage, triumph and community, recognizing the resilience and talents of our Indigenous students,” said Kennedy. “Congratulations to our award recipients, you make us proud.”

The evening’s guest of honour was Dr. Phyllis Webstad, founder of the Orange Shirt Society and a third-generation residential school survivor, who travelled to Niagara from Williams Lake, B.C. to attend the banquet.

Webstad spoke to guests about her family’s history in the residential school system, specifically at St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School in Williams Lake, and shared upcoming projects from the Orange Shirt Society to advance the organization’s pursuit of truth and reconciliation for the Indigenous peoples of Canada.

“The oppression is lifting,” Webstad said at the event. “I believe that, seeing all of the [Indigenous] graduates across Canada from high schools, colleges and universities.”

Webstad visited NC in September 2022 as part of Orange Shirt Day activities in the Niagara region. During the visit, NC presented Webstad with a new scholarship in her honour. The Dr. Phyllis Webstad Indigenous Scholarship was initially established with $40,000 in contributions from generous community donors and organizations who were inspired by Webstad’s story and advocacy work.

At the banquet, she met the inaugural recipients of the scholarship, each of whom received $1,000 during the 2023-24 academic year to help alleviate some of the financial burden that comes with a postsecondary education.

“When we created the Dr. Phyllis Webstad Scholarship to honour Phyllis, she made it clear that she was committed to meeting the award recipients in person whenever possible, to share in celebrating their perseverance and beautiful stories,” said Leah Hogan, NC’s Director of Indigenous Education.

Award-winning students

NC’s first group of Dr. Phyllis Webstad Indigenous Scholarship recipients are:

Stephanie Buck is a proud Onondaga and Cayuga from Six Nations of the Grand River and a mom to four young children. Buck completed her ACE certification through the Academic Upgrading program and enrolled in the Culinary Management program at the age of 38. She will graduate this June after persevering through many hurdles.

Tonya Burnham is of Lower Mohawk and Cree descent. After experiencing health issues and with experience as a Pharmacy Technician, Burnham enrolled in NC’s Office Administration - Health Services program. The first year-student enjoys learning and getting involved in community, including at the Fort Erie Friendship Centre and through the Niagara Chapter - Native Women Inc.

Randi Comrie is a First Nations woman who often felt disconnected from the traditional education system growing up. When she discovered the Early Childhood Education program, in partnership with Six Nations Polytechnic, she found her true calling. Through the program, which she will graduate from this month, she deepened her understanding of child development while learning how to create inclusive and culturally responsive learning environments.

“Congratulations to the first three recipients and I look forward to the many, many more in the years to come,” said Webstad after connecting with each student on stage.

NC’s Advancement team continues to welcome donations for this scholarship fund. The goal is to grow the fund to eventually support every Indigenous student who attends Niagara College.

Four additional students were also recognized at the event for receiving other financial awards to support the cost of their education.

Karina Courville from Welland is a part of the Métis Community. Karina is graduating from the Hairstyling – Barbering program this June and aspires to open her own salon to help people feel confident and connected, while sharing her Métis heritage through hairstyling.

Jaci Tekanoweraa Green completed her first year in the Protection Security and Investigation (Customs Border Services) program this year. Jaci is from the Mohawk Nation and is a dedicated and hard-working student who looks forward to continuing her studies at NC. 

Kelsey Harley from Milton is a member of the Wabaseemoong First Nation community. Harley just completed her first year in the Acting for Film and Digital Media program and aspires to work in the film industry in Toronto one day.

Logan Ritchie is a proud Anishnaabe and member of Chimnissing First Nation, located on Christian Island. Logan is graduating from the Broadcasting – Radio, Television and Film (Film Production) advanced diploma program this June and looks forward to pursuing a career in postproduction video editing.

A surprise mention was given to Social Service Worker student Sheena Maracle, who is Mohawk and Onieda. Maracle was recognized for her ability to connect with fellow students through her role as Indigenous Education Student Mentor with NC’s Indigenous Education team.

Along with employees, students and their families, many community partners joined the celebration, including members from NC’s Indigenous Education Management Circle (IEMC) and representatives from the Embark Student Foundation.

Earlier this year, Embark generously donated $500,000 to NC through its Embark Student Foundation Major Grant Program. The funds will help launch the Indigenous Student Success Pathways Project, which will directly support Indigenous learners at the College.