Dr. James A. Makokis is a Nehiyô (Plains Cree), Two-Spirit physician from Onihcikiskwapiwinihk (Saddle Lake Cree Nation), and one of this year’s Distinguished Alumni Award recipients. Here is James’s message to graduates.
In the 1970s, people from my reserve, Onihcikiskwapiwinihk, the Saddle Lake Cree Nation, gathered together because my grandmother, Alice Makokis, was working in the Indian Affairs office, and she overheard some conversations from the town and the local leaders that they were going to sell the residential school, Blue Quills, to the local town for a dollar. She saw that as an opportunity for us as nehiyâw, people of the four directions, to take over our own education and to educate our people in our own Cree laws, Cree thoughts and Cree education. For so long we did not have the opportunity because we were apprehended and forced to go to residential schools.
So she took that knowledge back to our community and rallied our people together. They brought those people together and took over that school from the priests and the nuns. They said, “We can do better. We will do better.” And at that time the prime minister of Canada was Pierre Elliott Trudeau, and the Indian Affairs minister was Jean Chrétien. And what they told our people who said “we will do better” is “no you won't.”
“These are the lessons that our people shared when they took over that residential school in the ‘70s. Even if it meant standing up to the highest office of this land.”
—Dr. James Makokis
That caused our people to gather together even stronger and go to Ottawa as a collective and say “We are going to do this for ourselves.” The response from the prime minister and the Indian Affairs minister was “We will give you one year to fail.” Well that was over 40 years ago, and Blue Quills First Nations College is now a university that grants degrees and diplomas, and in recognition of that work, Alice Makokis, my grandmother, was granted an honorary Social Work Diploma from MacEwan in the 1980s, when I was about five years old. Those honorary diplomas used to hang underneath the stairs of the 107 Street building. I used to walk along that hallway going to the organic chemistry lab.
That story tells me of the history that's important for us to maintain within our own families and within our own lives. Each one of you has stories about how you came to be here today. It is such a blessing to have a post-secondary education – and something that very few people in the world get to experience. With that comes a responsibility to make our world a better place and to learn critical thinking skills, which hopefully you've been able to do over the time that you've been here.
There are going to be some challenges that come your way, so I invite you to be courageous. I invite you to be brave and don't allow anyone to ever walk all over you, because you're beautiful. I think those are some of the lessons that our people shared when they took over that residential school in the ‘70s. Even if it meant standing up to the highest office of this land.
- Dr. James Makokis, Bachelor of Science Transfer, 2001
Learn more about James, his fellow recipients and the Distinguished Alumni Award.