As graduate Taylor Paul-Smith was being ushered toward the commencement stage, about to be recognized for completing high school, his family handed him a precious gift.
“It was just minutes before they told us all to line up,” the Chilliwack secondary school graduate says. The gift he received was a handmade, cedar-woven commencement cap that would replace the standard mortarboard. It stood out among the sea of more than 300 royal blue caps in Prospera Centre, as did a similar cap worn by his cousin. Paul-Smith’s was given to him by his aunt and uncle from Sechelt, ordered specifically for him. It fit perfectly, and was made complete with its very own tassel to be passed from right to left at the end of the ceremony.
The cap is both a nod to his accomplishments, and his First Nations heritage. It was also a complete surprise.
“I had told them I wanted one. But I had no idea what they were doing,” he says, even when his uncle called him one day to casually ask his head size. While Paul-Smith, 18, embraces his own culture, he does so quietly and on his own terms. His father taught him how to hunt when was just five years old, and now he hunts on his own and fishes as well.
Last year, when he started wearing a feather in his hair, he was subjected to racially-based teasing from his school peers. But like his cedar cap, a family member had given it to him as a gift, and so he wore it with honour.
“I wore it every day, until it wore away,” he says, touching the back of his head where the feather once had been. “I got kinda picked on for that.”
Eventually the feather dwindled down to barely anything, and he removed it. But the memory of how he was treated by his peers remains. And it’s only a small example of what First Nations students experience, while trying to remain true to their culture.
“It wasn’t easy at all,” Paul-Smith says, taking a moment in a chair in the open lounge of CSS. “I had to deal with everything, including racism and stereotypes.”
Sometimes, he says, it was easier just to remove himself.
“I’ve always kept to myself,” he adds, preferring reading and writing, or hunting and fishing for his family over socializing. “Not a lot of friends.”
Many days, he stayed in his bedroom and read all day or got caught up on homework. He would stay home all week and go in and pick up homework, preferring to complete his work in peace at home. He had had enough of the racism and teasing, and had been involved in a bit of fighting to defend his culture.
The CSS class of 2015 has the distinction of being the last class to pass through the doors of both the old campus and the new one. Many teachers and students saw the new building as a building block toward a new school culture.
Paul-Smith was one of them.
“I remember walking through these doors and wondering if anything would change,” he says.
But he shakes his head. For him, it didn’t.
But he remains hopeful for the future, where there is no racism against First Nations in Canada.
“I do see a day,” he says, thoughtfully. “But there’s always going to be people like that because of how they’re raised.”
He also sees hope for his own future, as a heavy duty mechanic. He has a few tasks to complete at school by year’s end, and is looking forward to enrolling at Seabird Island College. In the past, a student who didn’t want to be in class and was being bullied would often end up just dropping out. But that’s starting to change, and Paul-Smith is the perfect example of a student who has succeeded despite numerous setbacks. The Aboriginal Education Department, in the Neighbourhood Learning Centre attached to CSS, has helped him get there.
“Without this department, I would have dropped out,” he says, standing the halls of the NLC. “I know a lot of people who didn’t make it.”
He credits the Aboriginal Education room and its teachers for getting him to that commencement ceremony, for helping him earn that cedar grad cap.
About 20 per cent of the school’s population identifies as First Nations, or 192 students.
Lori August, an aboriginal education assistant, said success isn’t always measured in a Dogwood diploma. While not all the kids who pass through her doors end up on the stage at commencement, they do go on college and employment and contribute to society in meaningful ways. And they don’t turn students away.
“We have an open door policy,” she says. “We take students because we feel the best place for them to be is here.”
Paul-Smith is proud of his achievements so far, and looks forward to one day seeing his own children cross the stage. And when they get there, he’ll be giving them their own cedar caps.
But for now he’ll be forging into young adulthood, with a bit of trepidation.
“It happens fast,” he says, of adulthood. “All of a sudden it’s just dropped in your lap.”
So, does he have any sage advice for those who are struggling to finish high school?
“To the people coming behind me?” he says. “It’s never going to be easy, just try as hard as you can. Don’t settle for what’s given to you and work for what you want.”
And you may just earn your own cap.